Dog Death on United Airlines

A passenger's dog was inside an overhead bin on United Airlines Flight 1284 from Houston to New York for over three hours after a flight attendant told the passenger to put it there. Airline officials said they made a mistake. When the plane landed at LaGuardia Airport, the dog had passed away.

Spokesman Charlie Hobart told CNN that the flight attendant should not have told the passenger to put the dog in the bin used for carry on bags.

United Airlines has expressed full responsibility and expressed condolences to the family. They are investigating what happened to prevent it from ever happening again.  United has been in contact with the passenger who owned the dog and offered to pay for a necropsy.

United allows pets in the cabin when they are transported in kennels that can fit under the seat. Some types of animals are prohibited from flying on any flight, but this animal was not on that list. 

PETA, the animal rights group, issued a statement calling for the flight attendant responsible to be fired and charged with animal cruelty in the dog's horrific death. 

According to a US Department of Transportation report issued in February, 24 animals died in the care of US carriers last year. Three quarters of those, 18, died while being handled by United. Of the problems documented on this report, United had the highest rate of incidents.

A United spokesman said that the majority of the incidents were attributed to animals not being acclimated to its crate or the animal having a pre-existing condition that they weren't aware of.

Comments from Allen:
Ouch.  United Airlines has been getting some very bad press this past year, primarily from bumping passengers off of flights when it had overbooked those flights.  This case though, is very, very different.

The entire nation was outraged over this incident involving a dog.  Ask any person on the street what a case like this is worth, and they will bark a response that involves a very large number.

I would suggest analyzing this case in two different ways.  First, how much is United Airlines legally obligated to pay?  Second, how does the national bad press figure into a settlement?

As to the first question, the Texas Supreme Court laid down the law definitively in 2013 that in Texas, a dog is property.  Texas was chosen for this discussion because the owner lived in Texas with the pre-United-Airlines-status dog.  Texans love their dogs, and even consider them family members, but when someone negligently kills a dog in Texas, there is no recovery for the owner's very understandable grief:

 “Pets are property in the eyes of the law, and we decline to permit non-economic damages rooted solely in an owner’s subjective feelings,” Justice Don Willett wrote. “True, a beloved companion dog is not a fungible, inanimate object like, say, a toaster. The term ‘property’ is not a pejorative but a legal descriptor, and its use should not be misconstrued as discounting the emotional attachment that pet owners undeniably feel.

“Nevertheless, under established legal doctrine, recovery in pet-death cases is, barring legislative reclassification, limited to loss of value, not loss of relationship.”  Strickland v. Medlen, 397 S.W.3d 184 (Texas 2013).

In other words, a rescue dog is worth only the cost of getting the dog's shots and license, but even a special breed of dog is worth only what it can be purchased for on the open market.  Several animal rights groups took up Medlen's appeal and made this a test case.  They lost.  They incurred $183,364 in legal fees and costs, only to find the dog was worth virtually $0. 

Some states have strayed from this long-held view that a pet dog negligently killed is worth only what it costs to buy that particular type of dog.  Tennessee passed a law in 2000 authorizing non-economic damages of up to $5,000 when someone negligently or even intentionally kills a companion dog or cat.  Illinois allows emotional distress damages in addition to economic damages when someone tortures an animal or is guilty of aggravated cruelty, but not in cases of negligence.

The real value in the United Airlines dead-dog-in-the-bin case is adverse publicity.  This story probably cost United Airlines tens of millions of dollars in lost stock value plus lost revenue, especially when United was still in the process of rehabilitating its image after notoriously dragging Dr. David Dao, a Vietnam war refugee, off of one of its planes so a United employee could take his seat.   United did not need any more bad publicity.  

The negotiation for damages in this case should focus on United as the compassionate airline trying to make things right for the dog owner by offering a large sum of cash.  I believe United absolutely must pay more than it is legally obligated to pay.  Its legal obligation is outrageously small, and paying only what it is legallly obligated to pay would only throw gasoliine on this already-simmering public relations fire.  


Allen Browning is an attorney in Idaho Falls, Idaho who handles personal injury and criminal defense. He has over 30 years of experience and handled thousands of cases. Allen handles cases from all over Idaho. Call (208) 542-2700 to set up a free consultation if you are facing legal trouble or you have been involved in an accident.

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Allen Browning can help with all personal injury claims including motor vehicle accidents, truck accidents, auto accidents, serious and disabling accidents, and wrongful death claims.

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