Are you sure that yogurt caused that damage to your computer?

Jocelyn Kent Smith came to us with one of the most bizarre requests for help our advocates have ever encountered. Smith wanted our help in recovering compensation for damage to her computer, which she claims occurred on a Virgin Atlantic flight. But when we read her story and saw her photos, we doubted her version of events.

According to Smith, the damage to her new ASUS laptop took place when she inserted it in the pocket of the seat in front of her on a flight from London to Boston. When she removed it, claims Smith, it was covered with yogurt, which severely damaged the input and output ports of her computer.

Smith sent us photos that show that something got into her computer’s motherboard and damaged it, but that substance doesn’t appear to be yogurt — which is unlikely to be found in an airline seat pocket. Even if Smith is correct about yogurt being the cause of the damage, her story is a reminder to check the airline seat pocket in front of you for anything that could cause damage.

Smith posted about her case to our forum. She simultaneously asked our advocates to help her recover the cost of repairs to her computer.

Our forum member told Smith that it is unlikely that yogurt caused the damage to her computer. They also mentioned that because the computer was new, it might still be covered by a warranty.

“I have an estimate of the amount for repair from the manufacturer,” Smith told the forum members. “Luckily my computer is covered for spills during the first year. If I choose to fix the computer under this warranty, it’s voided. Instead, I was hoping that since Virgin acknowledged the damage in one email, that they should be responsible for the bill, thereby allowing the warranty to remain intact for the remainder of the year.”

Related story:   This consumer has been threatening the wrong company and wants our help

Virgin Atlantic’s acknowledgment of the damage was news to our advocates. As neither Smith’s help request nor the documentation she had provided to us contained any such acknowledgment, our advocates asked her to submit documentation of it.

We learned that after the flight, Smith contacted Virgin Atlantic’s customer service to request reimbursement for the cost of repairs to her computer, attaching the photo at the top of this story. (Executive contacts for Virgin Atlantic can be found on our website.) She received the following response:

Dear Ms. Smith,

Thank you for your email with regards to your recent flight with Virgin Atlantic. Please allow me to apologise for the damage caused to your laptop onboard. I can only imagine the frustration this incident must have caused.

We understand how important your belongings are to you so we do everything we can to make sure we take care of them during your flight. However, given the industry we’re in, that may not always be possible. In these circumstances we’ll seek to fix the problem as efficiently as possible, keeping you updated every step of the way.

Please be advised I have read through your claim and also noted the photographs that you provided. Due to the very nature of this item being a high-value electrical item, in the first instance we would respectfully advise you to speak with your travel insurance. Due to the airline’s limited liability in circumstances such as this, it is possible that theirs may extend further than that of our own.

Please let me assure you that this is not said with a view to evading responsibility for the circumstances, as under the laws of subrogation your insurance company will claim back their losses from the airline.

Ms. Smith, I wish to once again apologise for the damage caused. I hope that despite this experience, we have an opportunity to welcome you back on board again soon. It would be a pleasure to provide you with the usual high level of service that you deserve.

In Smith’s response to this letter, she claimed that Virgin Atlantic was responsible for the damage because of “a lack of cleaning by [the airline’s] staff.”

A Virgin Atlantic agent responded: “Electrical items and high-value items are taken onboard at passengers’ own risk and are the sole responsibility of the passenger. As an airline I’m afraid we would not be able to reimburse you to replace or repair the laptop on this occasion.”

Virgin Atlantic’s conditions of carriage provide that

We will not be liable for Damage to Unchecked Baggage unless such Damage is caused by our negligence.

Our maximum liability is limited to the local currency equivalent of 1,131 Special Drawing Rights per Passenger for Unchecked and Checked Baggage.

Our maximum liability is limited to … a maximum of the national currency equivalent of 1,131 SDRs per passenger for Unchecked and Checked Baggage where the Montreal Convention applies. All claims made under the Montreal Convention must be substantiated by documented proof of purchase, including date and price of purchase. Depreciation will be deducted.

So if Virgin Atlantic was, in fact, responsible for the damage to the computer, then it would owe Smith 532 SDRs (about $310), the amount Smith claims as the cost of computer repairs. Smith did not provide our advocates with any receipts or estimates of repair costs that indicated the nature of the damage.

But our advocates believe that Virgin Atlantic is not at fault. And ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Smith took her computer to ASUS where, she claims, ASUS pressured her to either pay for repairs or have their cost covered under the warranty. She opted for the latter.

The takeaways from Smith’s case are to make absolutely certain that an airline is responsible for damaging any property, whether checked or brought on board a flight, before filing a claim for reimbursement; to file such a claim at the time of the incident, and not later, as Smith did; and to provide our advocates with complete information when asking for our help. When that doesn’t happen, there is nothing our advocates or our forum members can do to help you.

And don’t stick anything in an airline seat pocket without checking it first — especially a laptop.

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for

  • Meredith Putvin

    Wait, she was traveling with a laptop that was not in a protective case?!?

  • Marc

    Strange case all around. If the manufacturer “pressured” her to either take their free fix or pay for the damage, it doesn’t sound like they believed it was a yogurt cause. I don’t think I would have put up such a fight when I was already covered for free by the manufacturer (unless I have a habit of spills).

  • Dutchess

    Yes, because who does?? Certainly not most of the laptops I see on planes.

  • thinfool

    Was it Greek yogurt?

  • SirWIred

    Well, if the picture that goes with the story is the machine in question, it looks like some sort of goopy dried-up dairy substance to me. That said, I don’t expect every seat pocket to be inspected prior to every single flight. And the airline is correct in that they aren’t responsible for high-value carry-ons.


    How long after the flight did the OP file the claim with Virgin? You mention a time ago but do not say how long she waited.

  • SirWIred

    While I travel with a laptop backpack, I don’t have a sleeve to put it it in when it’s not in that backpack. A seatback pocket is a perfectly reasonable place to put it when your tray table must be up.

  • LeeAnneClark

    How does she know it was yogurt? Wait…don’t answer that. I’m not sure I want to know. (blech…)

  • Kevin Nash

    The resolution of the picture of the “laptop” is terrible.

    I can’t tell if it’s a laptop or some 5th grader’s art project.

  • RichardII

    Rather than a picture of the motherboard, a picture of the yogurt in the seat back pocket might’ve been a lot more convincing.

  • Bill___A

    The category for this one is certainly appropriate. If there is insurance that covers it, this is the best path to resolution. I don’t see this as an airline problem.

  • Alan Gore

    If LW had pulled the laptop out of the seat pocket and found it covered with undocumented yogurt, she should have had an FA witness the problem on the spot. It’s not easy to go back later and claim that the mystery substance that dried on your computer actually got there from the seat back pocket.

  • Jeff W.

    I’ve never flown Virgin, but the on airlines I have flown, the FAs always make announcement that laptops are not to be placed in the seatback pocket. Basically for smaller items like a tablet, phone or book/magazine.

  • Patrica

    Take it from a mom, It does really really look like dried up dairy product…. I NOT fresh, dry. i don’t know if she made attempts to clean it, to use it, or whatever. Agreed, she needed FA witness, picture of the yogurt in the seat pocket, picture of laptop with good yogurt. AND believe me, the standards of cleanliness and cleaning methods onboard are severely lacking on the major airlines I’ve flown. I even take a large scarf to put on the backrest where my head goes….I sanitize tabletop, armrest, and window pull. AND peek into the pocket.

  • cscasi

    True. However, as was pointed out, it is the owner’s responsibility to check the seatback pocket to ensure there is nothing in there that should not be there.
    Had the LW done that, she would not have had that issue with her laptop – if indeed that is how that happened.

  • Kairho

    Laptops should never be put in those seat back pockets. In fact, the FAA prohibits using them for such storage:

    “The intent of the carry-on baggage regulation, Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations
    (14 CFR) part 121, § 121.589, is to prevent carry-on items from slowing an emergency evacuation and to
    prevent injury to passengers by ensuring items are properly restrained. Seat pockets have been designed to
    restrain approximately 3 pounds of weight and not the weight of additional carry-on items. Seat pockets are not
    listed in the regulation as an approved stowage location for carry-on baggage. If a seat pocket fails to restrain its
    contents, the contents of the seat pocket may impede emergency evacuation or may strike and injure a
    “If small, lightweight items, such as eyeglasses or a cell phone, can be placed in the seat pocket without
    exceeding the total designed weight limitation of the seat pocket or so that the seat pocket does not block anyone
    from evacuating the row of seats, it may be safe to do so. ”

    I’m surprised the airline even considered compensation given the passenger was in violation.

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