Flight Attendant Can Sue Over Smoke
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court let a flight attendant sue Northwest Airlines on her claim that she was harmed by secondhand smoke during flights to Asia.
The court, on a 6-3 vote Monday, declined to hear Northwest's appeal that argued the lawsuit was pre-empted by the federal law that deregulated the airline industry.
Voting to grant review were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas. Writing for the three, O'Connor said the case "presents an important issue" that has divided federal appeals courts and should be resolved by the nation's highest court.
The case was filed by Julie Duncan of Seattle, who said she suffered lung problems and chronic infections apparently related to secondhand smoke.
Northwest prohibited smoking on domestic flights in 1988, before the ban was required by federal law, but continued to allow smoking on flights to and from Japan for another decade. The airline said it did so to compete with other airlines that let passengers smoke.
Duncan's lawsuit, which sought class-action status, said Northwest violated its duty under Washington state law to provide a safe and healthy working environment.
The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act pre-empts all state lawsuits related to airline rates, routes or services.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying that allowing Duncan's claim to proceed would amount to allowing state regulation of a "service" provided by Northwest on its trans-Pacific flights.
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Duncan's lawsuit last April. Allowing smoking on some flights is not a "service" provided by an airline, the court said.
The court also said the prospect of damages from a personal-injury lawsuit would not affect an airline's services enough to warrant pre-emption under the federal law.
In the appeal acted on Monday, Northwest's lawyers said airlines should not have to "tailor their operations" to comply with laws in various states.
Duncan's lawyers said the deregulation law was not intended to protect airlines from personal-injury claims.