See you in court: 5 times when you should just sue ’em

Sometimes the last resort should be your first choice. That’s what Linda Sesa learned when she found herself stranded in St. Lucia recently.

Sesa, a nurse practitioner from Yardley, Pa., had missed her flight to Charlotte because a US Airways employee mistakenly asked her to stand in the wrong check-in line. The airline refused to pick up the $1,500 tab for a return flight on another carrier, instead offering two $400 vouchers for her inconvenience. “I felt helpless and totally baffled over the entire situation,” she says.

So Sesa did what increasing numbers of travelers are doing today. She took an airline to court. And she won.

No one knows how many travel-related cases are in the courts now. There aren’t any reliable surveys that aggregate actions in local, state and federal court or break out the number of cases that deal with airlines, car rental companies or hotels. But there’s significant anecdotal evidence that a group of disgruntled customers are simply bypassing the normal grievance process and suing.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and this column isn’t meant to dispense any legal advice. But I am an expert on complaints — I write the Travel Troubleshooter column that appears on this site — and I’ve advised many travelers as their cases have worked their way through the courts.

Lately, I’ve noticed people’s patience with the traditional complaint process — writing a letter, waiting for a reply, sending a probable appeal — is wearing thin. It’s as if they know they’ll be turned down and think they have a better chance of getting compensated by getting the law involved immediately.

Often, they do. Although the number of wins is just as difficult to find as the number of travel-related cases, my notebook tells me that passengers and hotel guests are doing pretty well in court, thanks very much. Most of the action is happening in a small-claims court, where the costs (and as far as the companies are concerned, the stakes) are relatively low. You don’t need an attorney, and you often win by default because the other side doesn’t show up.

Here are five times when you should consider skipping the complaints process and going straight to court:

When they’re playing games. Sesa’s problem is a good example of a travel company monkeying around with a customer. It repeatedly acknowledged its error and sent her a form letter that claimed “customer satisfaction is our main focus,” but then repeatedly disappointed her by refusing to pay for a new ticket back home. Sesa didn’t like the games, so she took US Airways to small claims court. Apparently, the airline thought that was all part of the game. “No one from US Airways showed up,” she remembers. “The judge asked me what happened, I told her, she was appalled, and I won by default.” Game over.

When they’ve broken a contract. In 1987, Mostyn Lloyd and his wife paid $250 each for a Hilton Senior HHonors lifetime membership. The card entitled them to room and meal discounts, as well as other perks. Hilton recently informed the couple that it was canceling the senior program. “I consider that a breach of contract,” he says. Hilton argues that its terms allow it to cancel the program anytime. (I contacted the hotel chain, and a spokeswoman told me she’s looking into the matter.) Lloyd says that argument makes no sense, and that the clause Hilton has invoked only applies to members of the program, not to the program itself. Maybe that’s something for a judge to decide.

When they’re being dishonest. I. Milton Karabell, a travel agent from Philadelphia, told me the following story: A few years ago, one of his clients booked a package that ended up not being quite what he expected. “After his return, we concluded that the ad for the package was false and misleading, and that he had costs he shouldn’t have incurred,” he remembers. Karabell told his client to go to small claims court, where, he remembers, the tour operator’s lawyers “arrived with checkbooks in hand.” Sometimes, it’s pointless to argue with a company about a claim it may or may not have made. Sometimes, the best place to settle an argument like this is in a court of law.

When they’re ignoring you. One of the easiest ways to get a travel company’s attention is to sue it, of course. Which wouldn’t be necessary if it was paying attention to you in the first place. So when one of my readers, who asked to remain nameless because he works for the government, recently wrote to me about an airline service problem, the answer seemed clear: sue. He’d been on a flight on which his business-class seat didn’t work, and wanted a partial refund. His airline paid no attention to his arguments — until it received a summons to appear in a California Superior Court. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter from the air carrier with a more generous settlement offer, which he accepted.

When they aren’t listening to reason. Mohit Singla says he’s headed to court because American Airlines is being unreasonable. He tried to board a flight from Chicago to Dallas recently, and although he had a valid boarding pass, the airline stopped him from getting on the flight. “My seat was given to people on a waiting list,” he says. He paid $800 to fly to Dallas on Southwest, and wants American to cover the cost of the new ticket. It won’t. “I feel insulted,” he told me. There’s more on Singla’s story and a fascinating discussion of the relevant airline rules on my blog. When you feel as if a travel company has stopped listening to reason, it’s time to start filling out your court papers.

Let me put it to you like this: if your travel company is lying, breaking its own rules, being obstinate or just ignoring you, you ought to consider taking it to court.

You never know what could happen. Jane Waun didn’t when she took Spirit Airlines to East Lansing (Mich.) 54B District Court recently. The airline had canceled her flight at Detroit Metro Airport and failed to rebook her and her family. Waun had to buy new tickets on another airline and spend the night in a hotel, which cost her $1,350.

Spirit, like other airlines, has a contract that lets it do more or less whatever it wants. A lost cause? I asked Ellen Creager, who wrote a terrific account of the trial for the Detroit Free Press, about what happened in court, and that’s not the way it ended. In a remarkable David-and-Goliath twist, Waun won. (If my memory serves correctly, the verdict was greeted with applause in the courtroom.)

I’m not surprised. At a time when America’s judges are contending the same substandard service that we do when we’re on the road, the courts have probably never been friendlier to the interests of travelers. Case closed.

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