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U.S. District Court in Michigan Rules Disabled Airline Passengers Can Sue Over Terminal Access

September 23, 2008

An airline may be liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to alleviate conditions in its terminal that obstructed access for its disabled passengers, a U.S. District Court in Michigan has ruled in denying a motion to dismiss. Five disabled customers of Northwest Airlines sued the airline and Detroit Metro Airport for violating the ADA and the Air Carrier Access Act, alleging that they suffered discrimination because the defendants’ terminal facilities imposed obstacles to air travel not encountered by those without disabilities.

Specifically, the plaintiffs alleged that the lack of adequate facilities resulted in falls, missed flights and damaged wheelchairs.

The court agreed with the defendants that the plaintiffs could not sue under the Air Carrier Access Act, concluding that the Act’s protections for the disabled created a “comprehensive enforcement scheme” that precluded a finding that Congress expressly or implicitly intended to create a private right of action.

However, the court rejected the notion that the protections of the ADA did not extend to airport terminals.

The defendants argued that the plaintiffs could not sue under the ADA because the public accommodation provision of the Act applies to a “terminal… used for specified public transportation,” and the term “specified public transportation” under the Act “means transportation by bus, rail, or any other conveyance (other than by aircraft).”

The court explained that “Congress chose to exclude aircraft from the definition of ‘specified public transportation,’ but did not exclude terminals from its definition of places of public accommodation. Indeed, the [Northwest] terminal in this case is used for bus, rail, and other motorized transport along with its principal function as a center for transportation by aircraft. This interpretation is consistent with Congress’s intent to limit the [Air Carrier Access Act's] reach to aircraft and the ADA’s reach to public spaces such as terminals. In fact, to conclude otherwise would leave the door open for acts of discrimination that could not be remedied.”

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Thomas v. Northwest Airlines Corp., No. 2:08-cv-11580-GCS-MJH. Sept. 2, 2008. Lawyers USA No. 99310716. Click here for the full text of this opinion.

Originally published by Lawyers USA Staff.

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