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Ricci v. American Airlines

Decided: July 14, 1988.


On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Camden County.

Furman, Long and Scalera. The opinion of the court was delivered by Long, J.A.D.


In 1986, plaintiffs Nicholas Ricci and his wife, Catherine Ricci, filed a complaint against defendant American Airlines (American) alleging that Nicholas Ricci was injured on an American flight when he was assaulted by another passenger as a result of the negligent actions of American and/or its agents.*fn1

American answered, denying the allegations of the complaint and moved for summary judgment. The facts, which for the purpose of the summary judgment motion were undisputed, are as follows: In February 1984, Nicholas and Catherine Ricci embarked on a 30th anniversary trip to Hawaii. They left on an American flight from Philadelphia International Airport as part of a group of 30 or 35 people, all of whom were acquainted with each other. The trip was uneventful until the couple reached San Francisco. At the airport, where they were scheduled to catch a flight to Hawaii, their final destination, they were told that the plane was overbooked and that they would have to settle for whatever seats were available. Tickets were distributed, and Mr. Ricci discovered that he would not be sitting next to his wife who was assigned a seat seven or eight rows away. Mr. Ricci was upset by these arrangements as were others on the plane. He requested that the airline personnel rectify the situation. In response, he was told again that

the plane had been overbooked and that "they [would] straighten it out on board."

Mr. Ricci boarded the plane and took his assigned seat in the smoking section. Sitting next to him was a younger, bearded man, wearing a suit and tie. Apparently, the bearded man was not pleased with his assigned seat in the smoking section. He and Mr. Ricci had a discussion on the subject. Mr. Ricci described the young man's manner as "sincere, he wasn't rough. He asked me if I would refrain from smoking, compromise."

Mr. Ricci responded, "Hey, there's no way I'm going to stop smoking. I'm a very heavy smoker, and I am in a smoking section, and you are not a smoker, and you are in a smoking section so you have to pay the consequences." Mr. Ricci's voice was "a little pitched up" when he said this. Nevertheless, he proposed what he considered a compromise: He said he intended to light up as soon as the "no smoking" sign was turned off, but he offered to face the aisle and blow his smoke in that direction. Mr. Ricci was into his second cigarette -- he said he smokes three packs a day -- and turned toward the aisle, when suddenly a hand reached across his face and snatched the cigarette from his lips. The hand belonged to the bearded man. Mr. Ricci turned and demanded, "just who the hell do you think you are?" He then "jumped" from his seat and attempted to retrieve the mangled cigarette. A scuffle ensued, and as Mr. Ricci put it, the two men exchanged "a few nice choice words." The bearded man, who was younger and stronger, grabbed Mr. Ricci by both wrists and wrestled him to his seat. During the incident, Mr. Ricci apparently clenched his teeth with such force that he cracked his denture. The whole incident took 30 seconds or a minute -- "it was over that fast." Mr. Ricci "[i]nstantly" lighted another cigarette.

A few moments later, according to Mr. Ricci, a stewardess approached him and told him that he had "better behave [him]self" or the FBI would greet him at the airport in Hawaii.

Mr. Ricci said this warning was directed solely toward him and that the bearded man was given no admonition by the stewardess. He said he was made to feel like a "criminal." Following this, the pilot announced over the public address system that the designation of Mr. Ricci's row was being changed from smoking to nonsmoking. Mr. Ricci was then escorted by a stewardess to the smoking section at the back of the plane where he proceeded to smoke for the rest of the flight.

According to Mr. Ricci's treating psychologist, he felt victimized by what happened on the plane, became depressed and was subsequently diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive depression. Mr. Ricci claimed that his injury resulted from a combination of factors including, but not limited to, the separation from his wife during the flight, the assault by the fellow passenger and his treatment by the stewardess following the incident, all of which were the responsibility of American.

In support of its motion for summary judgment, American claimed that only the assault by the fellow passenger caused Mr. Ricci's injury, and that it could not be held accountable for such an unforeseeable action. The trial ...

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