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GIBBS v. AMERICAN AIRLINES
March 8, 2002
DR. NEVILLE GIBBS, PLAINTIFF,
AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge.
This action arises from events that transpired before takeoff on an
American Airlines flight from Miami to Trinidad in February, 1999. The
following account of those events is set forth in the light most
favorable to Dr. Gibbs.
On February 6, 1999, Dr. Gibbs, an African American, and two
companions, Pierre Cumbo ("Cumbo") and Dr. Lennox E. Joseph ("Dr.
Joseph"), also African Americans, traveled from Reagan National Airport
in Washington, D.C. to Miami International Airport on an American
Airlines flight. In Miami they transferred to American Airlines flight
#1819 to Picaro, Trinidad. After boarding flight #1819, Dr. Gibbs and
his companions took their seats. Dr. Gibbs sat in the row directly in
front of Cumbo and Dr. Joseph.
After the plane then taxied onto the runway and was in a holding
pattern, an announcement was made that landing immigration cards would be
distributed while the plane was awaiting takeoff. A flight attendant,
later identified as Jerri Bell ("Bell"), came down the aisle distributing
the cards. Dr. Gibbs and his companions noticed that Bell seemed upset
and angry. When Dr. Joseph greeted Bell and asked her how things were
going, Bell replied that it had been a "rough day." She then leaned over
to Dr. Joseph and commented in an allegedly "derogatory" tone of voice
that the "black people" on the plane were misbehaving, and that her white
colleagues were asking her why the "black people" were behaving that
way. Bell also stated that the behavior of the "black people" on the
plane was embarrassing to her as a black person.*fn2
Dr. Gibbs, seated in the row in front of Cumbo and Dr. Joseph, could
not hear what Bell said but observed her speaking with his companions and
leaned back to ask what they were discussing. In response, Bell
allegedly became "very confrontational" and snapped, "That's exactly what
I'm talking about!" She then approached Dr. Gibbs, leaned in close to
his face, and shook her finger at him while loudly repeating, "That is
none of your business." Dr. Gibbs told Bell she was being rude, to which
she allegedly responded in a heated voice, "I could put you off this
Bell then departed and returned a few minutes later with James Morello
("Morello"), the aircraft's purser. Morello handed Dr. Gibbs an official
warning card containing language based upon 14 C.F.R. § 91.11
(stating that "[n]o person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or
interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties
aboard an aircraft being operated"). Dr. Gibbs refused to accept the
warning and requested that Morello question surrounding passengers to
verify what had transpired between him and Bell. Dr. Gibbs alleges that
two passengers verified his version of events, but were ignored by
Morello, and that other passengers protested the way he was being treated
by Morello and Bell.
Dr. Gibbs was detained by the police in the terminal and questioned
about his conduct on the plane. After Dr. Gibbs explained his version of
the incident, the police decided that no criminal activity had occurred
and released him. American Airlines facilitated his accommodations in
Miami that night and his flight to Trinidad the next day. Upon arriving
in Trinidad, Dr. Gibbs learned that many persons traveling there had
heard about the events on flight # 1819.
Dr. Gibbs claims that he did not scream at Bell or use any language
that could be deemed to threaten or harass her. He alleges that as a
result of the actions taken by American Airlines personnel he has
suffered "significant public embarrassment and humiliation, loss of self
esteem, mental anguish and severe emotional trauma resulting in periods
of sleeplessness, headaches, frequent gastrointestinal discomfort and
loss of appetite."
In his complaint, Dr. Gibbs alleged common law tort and contract
claims, as well as statutory discrimination claims under Section 1981 and
the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41310 ("Section 41310"). Dr.
Gibbs subsequently conceded that his common law claims were preempted by
the Warsaw Convention and that Section 41310 does not provide a private
cause of action, leaving only his Section 1981 claim in dispute.
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