At the heart of an ongoing legal battle lies a tragic incident that unfolded on February 8, 2019, during what was expected to be a routine airline journey from San Francisco to Monroe, Louisiana. Nathaniel Foster, a quadriplegic who uses a ventilator to breathe, was traveling with his family to attend a funeral in Louisiana. Upon arrival to Monroe Regional Airport, the family alleges that their son was handled negligently during his transfer onto the aisle wheelchair and off the aircraft, ultimately leaving Mr. Foster unable to breathe.

In their lawsuit, the family further alleges that airline staff turned away a doctor waiting in the terminal building who had offered to assist. The Foster family is seeking justice and accountability for the life-altering injuries suffered by their son. As the court prepares for the jury trial that will take place on Monday, August 7 in San Francisco, we delve deeper into the allegations and the family’s five causes of action in this important case.

Causes of Action

The Foster family’s lawsuit hinges on five causes of action described in the complaint:

  1. Negligence and Negligence Per Se: The plaintiffs argue that the airlines breached their duty of care as common carriers and air carriers under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, which require the highest degree of care for the safe passage of disabled passengers. The complaint alleges that the defendants violated several provisions of the ACAA, including failing to properly train their employees and contractors regarding safe deplaning procedures for disabled passengers, failing to provide safe deplaning assistance, and failing to use the appropriate devices for assistance. It is argued that the defendants’ violations of these federal regulations constitute Negligence Per Se, meaning that they are automatically considered negligent due to their failure to comply with the law.
  2. Negligent Hiring, Supervision, or Retention of Employee: In this cause of action, the Foster family argues that defendants United Airlines Holdings, Inc., United Airlines, Inc., ExpressJet Airlines, LLC, and DAL Global Services, LLC, are responsible for the harm caused by their individual agents and personnel. The complaint alleges that these agents were negligent in their actions or omissions, leading to Nathaniel Foster’s injuries. The family claims that the defendants had a duty to hire, supervise, and retain competent employees who could provide adequate assistance to disabled passengers, and contend that the defendants breached this duty by employing individuals who were unfit or incompetent to handle the responsibilities associated with assisting disabled passengers, including Nathaniel Foster.
  3. Breach of Contract: The lawsuit contends that the airlines violated their Contract of Carriage with the plaintiffs by failing to provide the promised safe carriage and disability accommodations, specifically with respect to “Rule 14 Special Services” and “Rule 18 Service Provided by United Express and Other Codeshare Partners,” which emphasize the responsibility of United Airlines to accommodate disabled passengers and provide necessary assistance during the flight.
  4. Negligent Misrepresentation: United Airlines is accused of making false representations to Pamela Foster on February 6, 2019, through its agents at the Accessibility Desk. The misrepresentation allegedly involved assuring Pamela Foster that her disabled son would receive the necessary accommodations and assistance during their trip from San Francisco to Monroe, Louisiana. The plaintiffs argue that United Airlines, Inc.’s representations were untrue and that the airline made these representations without reasonable grounds to believe they were true. As a result, Pamela Foster relied on these representations and suffered harm when Nathaniel did not receive the promised assistance, leading to catastrophic injuries.
  5. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: The airlines are accused of exhibiting extreme and outrageous conduct though a series of alleged acts and omissions which include the defendants’ alleged failure to maintain jet bridges, provide compliant aisle chairs, properly train their employees, and ensure an appropriate number of personnel for deplaning Nathaniel Foster, which the family claims has caused severe emotional distress in the aftermath of the incident.

The jury will be set to consider these claims, weighing evidence and testimony presented during trial, to determine whether United Airlines, its agents and contractors are responsible for Nathaniel Foster’s tragic injury and, if so, what the monetary value of those damages should be.

Jury Trial Preview

The case, Nathaniel Foster, et al. v. United Airlines, Inc. et al., is being tried in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. A jury trial, presided over by U.S. District Judge James Donato, will be held at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time on August 7, 2023 in courtroom 11 on the 19th floor at the Phillip Burton Federal Building & United States Courthouse located at 450 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco. will be in the courtroom to report on the proceedings, which are open to the public. Accessibility information for visitors with disabilities is available from the court website. To receive timely updates on the case, be sure to subscribe to the Wheelchair Travel Newsletter, and follow me on Twitter where I will be tweeting from the courtroom.

Video recording of the trial previously requested a video recording of the trial through the Cameras in the Courtroom Pilot Project created by the Judicial Conference of the United States. A notice of that request was registered in the case docket on July 12, 2023, with parties having seven days to object. None having done so, it is expected that the trial will be recorded and made available to the public thereafter. No specific date is guaranteed, however the video recording will be published on this website once the court has made it available.

Final Thoughts

The upcoming jury trial will determine whether the defendants, United Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines, will ultimately bear the responsibility for Nathaniel Foster’s catastrophic injuries and the emotional distress experienced by his family. The Foster family seeks justice and compensation for the alleged negligence that led to Nathaniel’s serious and life-changing injury and, as the trial unfolds, will be watching closely to report on the case and the jury’s verdict.

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