LOS ANGELES — A federal judge ruled two airlines were liable for an elderly asthmatic’s death because they refused to let the woman carry a bag containing her medication on board and then baggage handlers lost the bag.
U.S. District Judge Christina A. Snyder said Thursday that American Airlines and British West Indies Airlines were liable for the death of Caroline Neischer, 75, an Inglewood grandmother of 40 traveling from Los Angeles to Guyana for the wedding of a grandson.
Neischer wanted to carry with her a bag with a special inhaler and medication she needed for her asthma, but a ticket agent forced her to check the regulation-sized bag and it wasn’t returned for two days, testimony showed.
Both airlines were held liable even though it wasn’t clear whose agent forced her to part with the bag. An aviation litigation expert said it was the first time an airline had been held financially responsible for someone’s death because of mishandled luggage.
“It should put all airlines on notice that medical equipment that is used in the active care of a passenger must be made sure to be at the right place at the right time,” said Ned Good, past president of the Consumer Attorneys of California.
Neischer died Dec. 23, 1997, nine days after boarding a connecting flight from New York to Guyana. It was a trip she had made several times before, always carrying the same bag full of medication, court testimony showed.
She was allowed to carry the bag on the flight from Los Angeles to New York, but an unidentified airline agent in New York forced her to check the bag, testimony showed.
Neither the lawsuit nor court testimony gave any rationale for why an airline employee would have prevented Neischer from carrying her medication onto the flight with her.
During the trial, lawyers representing the airlines said that Neischer had a preexisting condition that helped contribute to her death, and that she contracted a respiratory infection during the flight that the missing medication would not have alleviated.
Lawyers for both airlines had no comment after the judge’s verdict.
“Someone insisted she relinquish her bag, which she did, kicking and screaming. They promised her it would be there when she got to Guyana. When she arrived, all of her bags were missing, including the carryon,” said attorney Bruce Altschuler, who represented Neischer’s daughter, Florence Prescod, in the wrongful death suit.
Neischer’s bag with the medication finally arrived in Guyana two days after her arrival, by which time she was already suffering from acute anxiety and breathing problems. She entered a Guyana hospital, where she died a week later.
All claims stemming from international air travel are governed by the Warsaw Convention of 1929, which imposes a $75,000 per-passenger limit on liability. Families can seek more if the airline is engaged in willful misconduct.
In her ruling after the nonjury trial, Snyder concluded that the two airlines were liable for Neischer’s death because they had been put on notice that she needed her medication to breathe and then ignored her requests before misplacing the bag.
Had Neischer been allowed to take her bag on board, Snyder ruled, “it is probable that she would not have died on Dec. 23, 1997.”
Neischer’s family was awarded about $170,000 based on her earnings and life expectancy of eight more years.