BOSTON — A federal appeals court overturned a $400,000 jury award to a Portuguese-born passenger who sued American Airlines Inc., claiming he was removed from a flight because of racial discrimination.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston vacated an award to John Cerqueira, 40, and criticized U.S. District Judge William G. Young for not dismissing the complaint.
“No properly instructed jury could return a verdict against the air carrier,” Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch wrote in the decision issued Thursday.
Under the Air Transportation Security Act, the three-judge panel ruled, carriers are permitted to turn away passengers who might be “inimical to safety.” Because the crew must decide such matters quickly, it said, “even mistaken decisions are protected so long as they are not arbitrary or capricious.”
Cerqueira, a naturalized American citizen who was born in Portugal, was removed from the December 2003 flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., along with two Israeli men seated in his row.
In his suit, Cerqueira, a computer consultant, claimed flight personnel cited him as a security risk because “his color and physical appearance is similar to that of individuals who are Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian.”
State Police later concluded the three weren’t a security threat, but the airline did not allow them to re-board. Cerqueira was described as hostile by one flight attendant.
The U.S. District Court jury had issued its verdict in January 2007, awarding $130,000 in compensatory damages and $270,000 in punitive damages.
David Godkin, attorney for Cerqueira, told the Boston Herald he may appeal. Michael Fitzhugh, an attorney for the airline, declined to comment.