Who's supposed to break up brawl on airplane?

Story highlights

  • Three passengers sue airline over in-air brawl
  • We may just be in an era of declining civility among passengers, Danny Cevallos says
  • But the lawsuit could force airlines to pay more attention to behavior, Cevallos says

Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst and a personal injury and criminal defense attorney practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Three passengers involved in an in-flight fracas on Spirit Airlines last month have filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County, California, against the carrier, alleging it provided excessive alcohol and failed to protect them from injury.

The plaintiffs allege that three other female passengers on a flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles International Airport were inconsiderate and inebriated. According to the plaintiffs' account, these women blasted music from a speaker and sang and danced in the cabin.
    When the merrymakers were asked to turn down the music, they responded ... by turning it up, according to the plaintiffs. The suit alleges the flight attendant responded to the row in the row by ... serving more alcohol and joining in the dancing. A passenger-on-passenger confrontation ensued shortly after the plane landed, which led to a scuffle seen in a video online.
    First, the facts: Yes, there are two sides to every story. I'm sure the loud-music aficionados have their own version. But certain facts are immutable. If someone is playing music on any kind of speaker on a flight, then that person starts off the dispute in the wrong.
    Similarly, pretty much any amount of singing and/or dancing, whether on a flight, bus or trolley, means the amateur performance artist is in the wrong. Does a boozy in-flight dance party warrant fisticuffs? No, of course not. But when did this kind of behavior among our fellow passengers, neighbors and moviegoers become acceptable? And when did carriers such as the airlines start condoning it? That's why this is a good lawsuit.
    It's a good lawsuit -- but not for the traditional reasons that make a personal injury lawsuit "good." Injury lawsuits are, at their core, an investment by a law firm in the profitability of the plaintiff's case. These cases are driven by three primary factors: 1) liability -- whether the defendant was at fault; 2) the amount of the likely damages; and 3) the defendant's ability to pay.
    Personal injury lawyers often lament that rare is the case that is strong in all three categories.
    If a law firm is concerned only about money, then this case might not be that appetizing. Sure, Spirit Airlines is a "deep pocket" and has ample ability to pay. But that's only one factor out of three. Spirit will surely contest liability and argue that the unruly passengers were the sole cause of the injury, and that nothing Spirit did caused or contributed to the problem. But Spirit has to concede the well-established rule: When you're in the business of moving people around, the law holds you to a higher standard of safeguarding your passengers.
    As for the third factor, as yet, the plaintiffs don't appear to be catastrophically injured. That's not minimizing at all what the plaintiffs went through -- certainly no one should be physically or verbally assaulted anywhere, on a plane, train or automobile. But generally, only documented, significant injuries will warrant sizable money from a judge or jury.
    For now, plaintiffs' attorney Gloria Allred is keeping mum on this point, telling the New York Daily News that because of the lawsuit she is "not at liberty to describe the specifics of their injuries." That's fine for now, but sooner or later, insurance adjusters and defense lawyers will demand medical evidence of those specifics. While the viral video of the violence is compelling, under the calculus utilized in evaluating plaintiffs' cases, a firm strictly interested in profit would usually decline a case lacking significant physical harm.
    All said, it's still a "good" case -- just not for the usual reasons.
    Lawsuits are amazing things. They imbue a single citizen with a unique power to challenge a problem or practice, and bring about institutional and cultural change. One person can't hold a rally.
    One person cannot march on Washington. But one person can take a case all the way to the Supreme Court, and potentially alter the fabric of our society, from legislation to the most intimate acts among private persons. The problem is: Not everyone has the money simply to litigate a good cause, especially when it means taking on a gigantic corporation. That's why this is a good case.
    It's a good case because it's not about the money. It's about addressing a consumer issue that airlines, buses and other carriers don't have any incentive to change: that everyone's behavior appears to be getting worse and worse. Airlines -- and public transit in general -- are turning into the Thunderdome.
    On the plane, people are playing first-person shooter games or watching movies on devices at full volume, barefoot, in sweat-stained tank tops. And at some point, everyone else got to bring their dogs on the plane. Mess with a flight attendant, and bad things will happen -- as they should. They'll land that plane, and you may feel the cold steel of an air marshal's standard-issue ASP baton.
    The problem is, no one really cares about passenger-on-passenger annoyance. And obnoxious citizen shenanigans seem to be a virus spreading everywhere: to movie theaters, the parents' section of children's sporting events, and of course, airlines.
    Owners have little financial incentive to get involved in these on-board quality-of-life problems. The customers have already paid in full. Plus, the airlines know no one is going to hire a lawyer to sue just because another passenger's ponytail flopped into their 28-inch personal space.
    Well, now someone has sued. Not because the case is a slam-dunk, million-dollar payday. Not because the plaintiffs have grievous or life-threatening injuries. Instead, maybe this lawsuit is about consumer protection: making corporations sit up and listen.
    Corporations don't really listen to you when you yell at customer service over the phone. They don't read your heartfelt letters. But they certainly pay attention to lawsuits.
    Can Spirit Airlines be held absolutely, automatically liable for everything their passengers do? Of course not. But "common carriers" such as airlines are legally obligated to care for their cargo -- us. Accordingly, they should at least care a little about what's going on in that cabin. The real problem may be one that no airline can completely eliminate; we may just be in an era of declining civility among passengers. That's not Spirit's fault -- but then again, they didn't really have an economic incentive to think about it either. Now they do.