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CRUZ v. AMERICAN AIRLINES
July 3, 2001
CRUZ, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS, V. AMERICAN AIRLINES, DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kollar-kotelly, District Judge.
In this prospective class action, several airline passengers allege
that Defendant American Airlines ("American") is liable for the full
value of bags lost on international flights and that American acted
unlawfully in refusing to process lost baggage claims accordingly.
Presently before the Court are the parties' cross motions for summary
judgment and Plaintiffs' motion for class certification. Upon
consideration of the pleadings*fn1 and the applicable law, the Court
shall grant American's motion for summary judgment in part and deny it in
part, grant Plaintiffs' cross motion for summary judgment in part and deny
it in part, and deny Plaintiffs' motion for class certification without
Plaintiffs in this suit fall into two separate camps that pursue
separate counts against American. While the root is the same for each
claim — American lost bags that Plaintiffs checked onto
international flights — the precise factual predicates for the two
separate counts differ, as do the corresponding requests for relief.
Therefore, the Court' recitation of the facts is bifurcated between the
two plaintiff groups.
Maria Cruz, Beato Cruz, Gustavo Cruz, Yovary Polanco, and Joaquin
Rodriguez (the "Cruz Plaintiffs")*fn2 traveled from Washington, DC, to
the Dominican Republic
on an American Airlines flight in December 1995. See American's Statement
of Material Facts as to Which There is No Genuine Issue ¶ 1
[hereinafter "Def.'s Stmt."]. While American weighed several of the Cruz
Plaintiffs bags at check-in and required the Cruz Plaintiffs to pay
overweight charges for three of them, airline staff neglected to write
the bags' weight on the baggage claim stubs. See Oct. 24, 1997, Mem. Op.
at 2-3. Upon arrival in Santo Domingo, the Cruz Plaintiffs discovered
that five of their checked bags were missing, and Maria Cruz reported the
loss by filing a property report claim. See Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 2.
Subsequently, each of the Cruz Plaintiffs submitted a Statement of
Property Loss, frequently referred to as a "Form OP-124," in which they
asserted that, in aggregate, the lost bags and their contents were worth
approximately $15,000. See id. ¶ 3.
Under American's internal "30-Day Rule" in effect at that time, the
airline generally refused to settle claims that were not filed within
thirty days of a loss. In accordance with this Rule, American originally
refused to voluntarily compensate the Cruz Plaintiffs for their lost bags
because they had failed to submit their OP-124 forms within thirty days.
See id. ¶ 4. Plaintiffs subsequently commenced this litigation
asserting that American is liable for the fair value of the lost bags
under the Warsaw Convention.*fn3
In a Memorandum Opinion issued on October 24, 1997, the Court
determined that the Article 22(2) of the Warsaw Convention limited
American's liability for the lost bags. See Oct. 24, 1997, Mem. Op. at
16. While Plaintiffs argued that American's failure to record the weight
of the bags at check-in precluded the airline from benefitting from the
limitation, the Court found that the liability caps still applied, and it
entered judgment in favor of American. See id. On subsequent appeal, the
United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
addressed the availability of liability caps in these circumstances and
considered whether Montreal Protocol 4,*fn4 ratified after this Court's
October 1997 opinion, impacted the analysis. See Cruz v. Am. Airlines,
Inc., 193 F.3d 526 (D.C.Cir. 1999). Concluding that the Warsaw Convention
offers no protection for such carriers and that Montreal Protocol 4 does
not have retroactive effect, the circuit court vacated this Court's
earlier entry of judgment and remanded the case. See id. at 530, 532.
Following the issuance of the circuit court's opinion, the Plaintiffs
prepared a Second Amended Complaint. In Count One, the Cruz Plaintiffs
seek (1) a declaration that American's 30-Day Rule is unlawful, (2) an
injunction barring American from "publishing, applying or enforcing" the
Rule, (3) a declaration that the Cruz Plaintiffs are entitled to
compensation for their lost bags, (4) a declaration of "the lawful
measure of [American's liability to the class members as compensation,"
(5) compensatory damages in an amount equal to the fair value of the lost
baggage or, when appropriate, "the amount which results from multiplying
$9.07/lb. by the `deemed weight'" of the lost bag. See 2nd Compl.,
Wherefore Clause following ¶ 19.
Like the Cruz Plaintiffs, Beato Cruz*fn5 and Lawrence and Jo Ann
Benken (the "Count Two Plaintiffs") lost property on flights operated by
American. After arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York after a
January 1997 flight from the Dominican Republic, Beato Cruz discovered
that his checked bag had been damaged and that its contents were
missing. See Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 6. The day after discovering the loss,
Beato Cruz submitted an OP-124 form to American at Washington Reagan
National Airport in which he estimated the value of the lost and damaged
property at $3,890. See Decl. of Debbie David, Manager for American
Airlines' Central Baggage Service [hereinafter "David Dec."], Ex. B at
A001021 (OP-124). At the time he submitted the form, American provided
Beato Cruz with a $100 travel voucher, and he affixed his signature next
to a statement that provided as follows:
Customer Receipt and Release: The above sum [$100
travel voucher] received from American Airlines is in
full satisfaction of all claims, liabilities, and
demands that I may have against said company.
David Decl., Ex. N (Baggage Report and Release). Subsequently, American
sent Beato Cruz a letter explaining that its liability for such losses is
limited to $9.07 per pound up to a maximum of seventy pounds under the
Warsaw Convention. See Pls.' Consolidated P. & A. in Opp'n to Def.'s
Mot. for Summ. J. & in Supp. of Pls.' Cross Mot. for Summ. J.
[hereinafter "Pls.' Mem."], Ex. 15 at 32-33 (B. Cruz Depo.); see also
id., Ex. 3 (sample letters). In keeping with that representation,
American also sent Beato Cruz a check for $634.90 as full compensation
for his bag in accordance with the liability limitation. Beato Cruz
endorsed the check beneath a statement that, in pertinent part, provided
that "[b]y endorsement or deposit of this check I(we) hereby release
American Airlines . . . from all claims arising in connections with the
loss, damage or delay of my belongings." Id., Ex. O (check and
endorsement).*fn6 At the time he endorsed the check, Beato Cruz believed
that he could pursue claims against American for additional
compensation, notwithstanding American's representations regarding its
limited liability. See Decl. of Jonathan K. Tycko [hereinafter "Tycko
Decl."], Ex. A. at 43-44 (B. Cruz Depo.).
Lawrence and Jo Ann Benken flew on American Airlines from Buenos
Aires, Argentina, to John F. Kennedy Airport on January 15, 1999. See
Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 11. In New York, they took a bus to LaGuardia Airport
and then flew on to Indianapolis by way of Chicago. See id. The Benkens'
four checked bags arrived safely in New York, but they did not arrive in
Indianapolis. See id. ¶¶ 11-12. Two of the four bags were delivered to
the Benkens' home a day late, and the other two were never recovered. See
id. ¶ 12. The Benkens submitted two OP-124 forms in which they
asserted that, in aggregate, the lost bags and their contents were worth
$7,360. See id. ¶ 12; David Decl., Ex. C at A001033, A001038
On April 12, 1999, American sent Lawrence Benken a letter stating that
its "liability is limited to $9.07 per pound, up to a maximum allowable
weight of 70 pounds, or $634.90 per bag." Pls.' Cross-Mot. for Summ. J.,
Ex. 3 at 2 (April 12, 1999, letter). At the same time, American issued
Lawrence Benken a check for $1269.80, the amount recoverable under the
liability cap for two lost bags. See Def.'s Stmt. ¶ 13. With her
husband's approval, Jo Ann Benken endorsed the check below a release
statement identical to the statement that appeared on the check that
Beato Cruz endorsed. See id. ¶¶ 13-14. Prior to Jo Ann Benken's
endorsement of the check, Lawrence Benken consulted an attorney and
reached the conclusion that the Warsaw Convention did not definitively
limit American's liability in these circumstances. See id. ¶ 14;
Tycko Decl., Ex. B at 67, 77-78, 80-81 (Lawrence Benken Depo.).
Nonetheless, he ultimately decided to allow his wife to endorse the check
in order to "get it out of the way" and to avoid the annoyance and
"hassle" of bringing suit against the airline. See Def.'s Stmt. ¶
14; Tycko Decl., Ex. B at 77-78, 80-81.
In Count Two of the Second Amended Complaint, Beato Cruz and the
Benkens seek (1) a declaration that American's reliance on liability
limitations was unlawful in these circumstances, (2) a declaration of
"the lawful measure of [American]'s liability to the class members as
compensation," and (3) compensatory damages in an amount equal to the
fair value of the lost baggage, less any funds already provided in an
effort to settle the claims. See 2nd Compl., Wherefore Clause following
Three separate motions are currently pending before the Court. First,
Plaintiffs have filed a motion for class certification in which they ask
the Court to approve two separate plaintiff classes. Second, American has
filed a motion for summary judgment with respect to all Plaintiffs and
all claims. Third, Plaintiffs have submitted a cross-motion for partial
summary judgment on each of their claims.
Faced with this series of motions, the Court's first task is to
determine the proper order in which to address them. Observing that Rule
23(c)(1) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure directs courts to resolve
class certification motions "[a]s soon as practicable after the
commencement of an action," Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(c)(1), Plaintiffs urge the
Court to consider their certification motion first. See Pls.' Mem at
1-2. In support of this position, Plaintiffs refer the Court to Eisen v.
Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 94 S.Ct. 2140, 40 L.Ed.2d 732
(1974), in which the Supreme Court admonished that "nothing in either the
language or history of Rule 23 gives a court any authority to conduct a
preliminary hearing on the merits of a suit in order to determine whether
it may be maintained as a class action." Id. at 177, 94 S.Ct. 2140.
It is true that Rule 23(c)(1) of the civil rules
requires certification as soon as practicable, which
will usually be before the case is ripe for summary
judgment. . . . But "usually" is not "always," and
"practicable" allows for wiggle room. Class actions
are expensive to defend. One way to try to knock one
off at low cost is to seek summary judgment before the
suit is certified as a class action. A decision that
the claim of the named plaintiffs lacks merit
ordinarily, though not invariably, . . . disqualifies
the named plaintiffs as proper class representatives.
The effect is to moot the question whether to certify
the suit as a class action unless the lawyers for the
class manage to find another representative.
Cowen v. Bank United of Texas, 70 F.3d 937, 941 (7th Cir. 1995); see also
Christensen v. Kiewit-Murdock Inv. Corp., 815 F.2d 206, 214 (2d Cir.
1987) (holding that a district court has discretion to decide a motion
for summary judgment before ruling on a plaintiffs motion to certify a
lawsuit as a class action); Hyman v. First Union Corp., 982 F. Supp. 8,
10-11 (D.D.C. 1997) (determining that the language of Rule 23 "give[s]
district court judges great discretion in determining the appropriate
timing" for ruling on pending motions).
Thus, a district court operates with discretion when determining
whether to consider a motion for summary judgment prior to a motion for
class certification. If the resolution of the summary judgment motion may
eliminate the need to consider the certification motion ab initio, the
court's interest in preserving judicial resources, as well as the
resources of the litigants, counsels in favor of addressing the summary
judgment motion first. In this case, the Court finds that its resolution
of the pending cross motions for summary judgment may indeed render the
class certification motion moot. Accordingly, the Court turns first to
the parties' cross motions for summary judgment.
Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires a court to
grant judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to
interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if
any. show that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of
law." Fed. R.Civ.P. 56(c); see also Tao v. Freeh, 27 F.3d 635, 638
(D.C.Cir. 1994). Although the court should draw all inferences from the
supporting records submitted by the nonmoving party, the mere existence
of a factual dispute, by itself, is not sufficient to bar summary
judgment. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106
S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The adverse party's pleadings must
evince the existence of a genuine issue of material fact. See id. at
To be material, the factual assertion must be capable of affecting the
substantive outcome of the litigation; to be genuine, the issue must be
supported by sufficient admissible evidence such that a reasonable
trier-of-fact could find for the nonmoving party. See id.; Laningham v.
United States Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242-43 (D.C.Cir. 1987). Mere
allegations or denials in the adverse party's pleadings are insufficient
to defeat an otherwise proper motion for summary judgment. Rather, the
nonmoving party bears the affirmative duty to present, by affidavits or
other means, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for
trial. See id. at 1248-49. The adverse
party must do more than simply ...