United Airlines Video – Lawful Removal or an Assault?


A viral video has emerged of a passenger being violently dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight which was waiting to depart from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

In trying to make room for four of its employees on the overbooked flight, United Airlines offered $400 and then $800 in vouchers and a hotel stay to any passenger who voluntarily gave up their seat. After no passengers volunteered, an airline employee announced that passengers would be randomly chosen to leave the plane.

Four passengers were named, three of whom left the plane without issue. The fourth man told airline employees he could not leave the flight as he was a doctor who had to see his patients the next morning.

What followed was a violent scene caught on camera, where security officers forcibly pulled the man from his seat and dragged him down the aisle, leaving him with a bloodied face.

The United Airlines employees boarded the plane after all four passengers were gone. The man was ultimately taken away on a stretcher and, after a further three hour delay, the flight took off without the bloodied man on board.

Reaction

Online reaction to the video has been brutal, with many criticising United Airlines for overbooking the flight and employing violent measures to forcibly remove a paying passenger who was clearly desperate to reach his destination.

Trespass and Assault

The video raises the question of whether the hapless passenger’s removal from the plane was lawful.

Imagine sitting on a Qantas flight and, moments before take-off, an employee asks you to leave the plane because it is overbooked. What if you refuse? Would it be lawful for police, or even Qantas employees, to use reasonable force to remove you? The unfortunate answer, depending on the terms and conditions of your ticket, is it may be.

If a person enters your property without your consent, they are considered a trespasser and you may use “reasonable force” to remove them. Similarly, if you invite a person onto your property and later decide they must leave – and they refuse to comply with your direction – you may use reasonable force to physically remove them.

Of course, in most cases it would be more prudent to call the police and have the person charged with the offence of trespass rather than personally using force, and risking a violent escalation, to remove them from your property.

Whilst the law entitles you to use physical force to remove a trespasser, you will be committing an assault if you apply more force that is reasonably necessary to remove the person..

Going back to our example where you are seated on a plane eagerly awaiting take off and your next holiday destination, identical principles in relation to trespass apply – despite the fact you paid for your ticket.

When purchasing an airline ticket, you are entering into a contract with the airline and accepting the terms and conditions attaching to the sale. For example, the Qantas ‘Conditions of Carriage’ document states:

“Airline flights may be overbooked. This means there is a slight chance that there may be more reservations than available seats on your flight. In these circumstances, where practicable, we will offer an incentive for volunteers not to travel on their booked flight. Volunteers will not be entitled to any further payment, refund or compensation. If there are not enough volunteers, we may need to deny boarding to one or more Passengers involuntarily”.

Essentially, when you purchase a plane ticket, as with any other service, you are agreeing to be bound by terms and conditions that are permissible at law. A plane ticket is a licence to board the plane subject to the airlines terms and conditions.

Again depending on the terms and conditions, you may become a trespasser if you refuse to leave an overbooked plane on request, and airline staff may use reasonable force to remove you.

Returning to the United Airlines video, what can be seen from the footage is the passenger apparently resisting attempts to remove him from the plane. On one (unpopular) view, the staff are entitled to do this provided they do not overstep the mark in terms of using reasonable force.

On another view, the passenger had already boarded the plane, and the conditions (if similar to those of Qantas) make no reference to removal after boarding.


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About Wali Shukoor

Wali Shukoor is a Senior Criminal Lawyer at Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Sydney's leading firm of criminal and traffic defence lawyers.
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