Southwest Airlines flew a 737 to the wrong airport in Branson, Missouri. One man sued for damages, but for the seemingly odd amount of $74,999.99 instead of an even $75,000. But his reasoning is sound and his strategy brilliant.
Branson, Missouri (population 11,430) has two airports: Branson Airport and Taney County Airport. The airports are six miles away from each other. Taney County Airport is a tiny municipal airport with a runway half the size of Branson Airport. Yet somehow, a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago Midway landed at the smaller airport.
With such a short runway, the captain rapidly applied the brakes, which allegedly filled the cabin with smoke and the stench of burnt rubber. Although no one was injured, the aircraft came within 40 feet of the edge of a cliff.
Not long after, one passenger filed suit against Southwest Airlines. Per Bill Murphy Jr. of INC, who reviewed his legal complaint:
The passenger who sued Southwest, Troy Haines, lived in the area and had flown into Branson Airport many times, and says he realized well before the plane landed–even if the pilots didn’t–they were at the wrong airport, “with a much smaller runway.”
He was “immediately struck with fear and anxiety over potentially crashing,” according to his lawsuit, and he later “suffered severe mental anguish, fear and anxiety, including a panic attack which caused him to be removed from another airline prior to takeoff.”
That in turn led him to stop flying, which meant taking a job that didn’t require travel–“at a substantially diminished salary.”
Why $74,999.99 and not $75,000.00?
Haines’ complaint is clear:
Plaintiff is requesting damages in the amount of $74,999.99 and nothing more.
Put simply, to keep the case in state court.
The USA has two court systems: state and federal. Under civil procedure rules, a defendant can “remove” a case from state to federal court if the amount in controversy is greater than $75,000.00 and the two parties hail from different states. Southwest, of course, is Texas-based.
The underlying rationale for this rule is a desire to avoid local bias in favor of the plaintiff. Think about it: Southwest Airlines stopped flying to Branson five months after the incident. Frontier left soon after.
Branson is a small town. How do you think its citizens feel about losing commercial air service? How likely is it that everyone in the potential jury pool was personally affected or knew someone affected by the demise of commercial air service in Branson?
If the case was removed to federal court, the case would be tried 50 miles away in Springfield. There, the jury would be far less likely to be personally affected by Southwest’s departure from Branson.
So asking for one penny less was a legal strategy. It will keep the case and jury pool in Branson, ostensibly helping the plaintiff. The conventional wisdom is that for amounts of controversy less than $75,000.01, there is less likely to be bias…yet isn’t that exactly what Haines is seeking?
There is nothing “wrong” with suing for one penny less (Haines actually had an extra penny to spare). That’s the nature of the American legal system. It could actually be to Haines’ detriment. Perhaps a Springfield jury would have been far more likely to “stick it” to the deeply-pocketed Southwest had Haines sued for a few hundred thousand dollars.
But I think his chosen path represents his best chance to settle or win his frivolous lawsuit.