How to Sue an Airline

Claudia Diaz - Airlines - November 13, 2022

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There has been no shortage of airline horror stories over the past few years. People have been dealing with canceled flights, damaged or lost luggage, and other travel issues due to airlines. If you are thinking about suing an airline, it may seem daunting at first, however, small claims courts were intended to help individuals pursue legal action in an affordable and user-friendly manner. This article will break down the small claims process and help you understand how to sue an airline in small claims court.

Ready to sue an airline in small claims court? People Clerk can help. 

Common Complaints and Lawsuits Against Airlines

We often get the question, can I sue an airline in small claims court? Generally, yes you can sue an airline in small claims court. The U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”), which is a  federal agency that regulates airlines operating in the U.S, even publishes a Consumer’s Guide to Small Claims Court

Here are some of the common complaints passengers have against airlines:  

Here are some lawsuits filed against airlines in small claims court: 

  • We have reviewed a San Diego small claims lawsuit against Volaris in which the person suing claimed that Volaris did not notify them that their Volaris flight was changed to an earlier time and because of this departure time change, they missed the flight. The person suing sued for a total of $9,000 because as a result of missing their flight, they lost wages due to missing work and for out-of-pocket expenses like hotel, other flights, and food from missing the flight. The person suing won a total of $1,896.20. The court’s decision is unclear as to why they won that amount. 

  • Other common lawsuits we reviewed were over damaged luggage, issues with the ticket, and refunds for flight cancellations.

Suing an Airline for Lost Luggage in Small Claims Court

You may sue an airline in small claims court for losing your bags. For example, you were on vacation in Puerto Rico and flew back home to Colorado with United Airlines. If while in transit United Airlines lost your bags you may want to consider suing United Airlines in small claims court. 

Make sure to review the airline’s policy for lost bags as you may need to submit a claim with the airline first letting them know that they lost your bags. However, if the airline cannot find your luggage or compensate you for losing your bags, it may be time to file a small claims lawsuit against the airline for damaging, losing, or delaying delivery of your luggage. 

Learn how to sue an airline for lost, damaged, or delayed luggage. 

Suing an Airline for a Refund in Small Claims Court 

Many of our clients have dealt with airlines that refuse to honor their refund policies or the DOT’s guidelines on refunds by suing for a refund in small claims court. However, before you take any legal action against an airline for a refund, you want to make sure you are entitled to said refund. 

Look for an airline’s refund policies on their website or in their contract of carriage. A contract of carriage is a contract from the airline that contains its terms and conditions. This document will define the rights, duties, and liabilities of parties to the contract (in this case you and the airline). 

The DOT also checks to make sure airlines are complying with aviation consumer protection requirements, for example, by providing refunds when required by federal law. 

Below we have included some common scenarios described in the DOT’s Am I entitled to a refund and Flight Delays and Cancelations articles that may help you figure out if you are entitled to a refund: 

  1. You may be entitled to a refund (even for non-refundable tickets) if your flight is canceled and you choose to cancel your trip as a result. Also, depending on your airline’s refund policy other costs resulting from canceled flights, like booking a hotel for the night, might be covered. 

  2. You may be entitled to a ticket refund if an airline made a significant delay and you choose not to travel. The DOT unfortunately has not defined what constitutes “significant.” Factors such as the length of the delay, the length of the flight, etc. influence this determination. 

  3. You may be entitled to a refund if you were involuntarily moved to a lower class on the plane. For example, if you purchased a first-class ticket and were downgraded to economy class you may be entitled to a refund for the difference in ticket fares.

  4. You may not be entitled to a refund if you are unable to travel due to certain personal issues. For example, if you were running late to the airport and the airline does not let you board the plane because they had already closed the gate you may not be entitled to a refund.  

What should you do if an airline refuses to provide you with a refund? 

If an airline is not honoring its refund policies or the airline’s refund policies seem unfair or deceptive consider suing the airline in small claims court. In small claims court, the judge will be the ultimate decider of whether an airline’s refund terms are fair or enforceable. 

Ready to sue an airline in small claims court? People Clerk can help. 

Suing an Airline for Negligence in Small Claims Court

Individuals can sue airlines in small claims court for damages caused by an airline’s negligence. For example, damages can arise from personal injuries (for example a broken arm) or from emotional distress caused by an airline’s negligent treatment. 

Certain negligence claims, like emotional distress, are hard to prove in small claims court. This is because proving emotional distress in any type of court (small claims or not) requires a lot of evidence and expert witnesses. Before suing an airline for emotional distress or personal injury, you may want to consider consulting with a lawyer. Most of the time personal injury lawyers have free consultations where they can let you know what they think of your case. If a personal injury lawyer agrees to help you with your lawsuit, it is usually done on a contingency which means you don’t pay unless they win. 

What To Do Before Suing an Airline in Small Claims Court 

Here are some steps you may want to take before filing a small claims lawsuit against an airline: 

  1. Collect all evidence against the airline. 

  2. Review the airline’s contract of carriage.

  3. Communicate with the airline’s customer service.   

  4. Send a demand letter to the airline. 

  5. Figure out where to sue the airline.  

We will review each one of these steps below. 

Collect All Evidence Against the Airline 

Start collecting evidence as soon as you have a problem with an airline. This is extremely important if you decide to sue the airline in small claims court later. 

Here is a sample checklist of the evidence you should consider collecting and taking to court:

  • Your airplane tickets. 

  • If your baggage was damaged include bag stubs. 

  • Any contract or written agreements with the airline. 

  • Communications with the airline. This could be text conversations or emails.

  • Pictures of your damaged bags.

  • Other documents the airline might have given you that relate to your issue. For example, if your flight was canceled and you received correspondence from the airline explaining why it was canceled. 

  • Declarations from witnesses, airline representatives, or any other relevant individuals. 

People Clerk can help you organize your evidence and sue an airline in small claims court. 

Examine the Airline's Contract Of Carriage 

Before suing an airline in small claims court, make sure to review the airline’s contract of carriage (sometimes called the conditions of carriage). An airline’s contract of carriage usually contains the airline’s terms and conditions. Under the contract of carriage, for example, you should be able to find out information on the airline’s refund policy.

Here are some other things to look for in an airline’s contract of carriage:

  1. Does the contract of carriage discuss methods of dispute resolution like arbitration or mediation? This is important because the airline may ask that you participate in one of these alternative forms of dispute resolution before or instead of suing in small claims court. Additionally, if you find an arbitration clause look for an exception for small claim court. Arbitration is a private and costly form of dispute resolution so many contracts that have arbitration clauses also include exceptions for small claims court.

  2. The contract of carriage may discuss the airline’s responsibility in the event there is a change to your flight plan. For example, American Airlines’ conditions of carriage discuss their responsibilities when there is a schedule change. 

  3. Is the airline limiting its liability for damaged, lost, or delayed baggage? In some instances, airlines will limit their responsibility for your bags. For example, Delta’s contract of carriage discusses the limitations on liability for loss of, damage to, or delay in delivery of a passenger’s baggage. 

Communicate With the Airline’s Customer Service   

Consider calling the airline’s customer service number or, if you can, speak to an airline representative at the airport and see if they have some type of process for addressing your problem. 

Most major airlines allow passengers to file a claim over the phone, online, or in person. For example, United Airlines’ Baggage Service Office handles passenger issues relating to baggage. You can call the Baggage Service Office at 1-800-335-2247 or file a claim with United Airlines online

If the airline does not respond to your claims or is unable to assist you with your problem then consider sending a demand letter stating your intent to sue in small claims court. 

Send a Demand Letter to the Airline 

You may be able to settle your dispute with an airline outside of court by sending the airline a demand letter. A demand letter is a letter outlining a set of requests you would like the airline to fulfill.

Some state small claims courts may require that you send the airline a demand letter asking for payment before you can sue them in small claims court. For example, in California small claims court you will need to ask the airline to pay you for what you intend to sue for before you sue them. Even if this is not a requirement in your state small claims court, it is highly recommended to send a demand letter to the airline before suing them. By sending a demand letter you may be able to settle your claim with the airline without going to court. 

Here are some things you should consider including in your demand letter to an airline:

  • How much money does the airline owe you?

  • Why does the airline owe you money? What are the facts of your claim? 

  • How did you calculate how much the airline owes you?

  • Include a statement saying you intend to sue the airline if they do not respond to the demand letter. 

  • Typically, people give airlines 7-14 days to respond to their demand letter.

People Clerk has a free tool to help you write a demand letter to an airline. 

Determine Where to Sue the Airline 

If you are considering filing a small claims lawsuit against an airline you will need to determine in which small claims court you will sue the airline. 

Unfortunately, in some instances the court you file in will not be the closest or most convenient to you. Before going to the nearest small claims court to file your small claims lawsuit, take some time to figure out which court has "authority" over the airline. This is known as "jurisdiction." The DOT states that, generally, an airline can be sued in a small claims court in any jurisdiction where it operates flights or has an office. However, states have their own jurisdiction requirements. 

  • For example, in New York small claims, you can only sue an airline in small claims if the airline has an office in New York. 

  • For example, in California small claims, you will be able to sue the airline where you flew from or into in California. 

Suing an Airline in Small Claims Court 

Consider filing a small claims lawsuit against an airline for damages they may have caused you. Small claims courts handle a variety of issues that may relate to your dispute with an airline including property damage or breach of contract. Learn how to sue an airline in small claims court for lost baggage, refunds, etc. below. 

Here are the steps to suing an airline in small claims court:  

  1. Prepare the lawsuit. 

  2. File the lawsuit. 

  3. Notify the airline that they have been sued (this is called “serving”). 

  4. Prepare for and attend the small claims hearing. 

People Clerk can help you file and serve your small claims lawsuit against an airline.

Step 1: Prepare Your Small Claims Lawsuit Against an Airline 

In order to sue an airline in a small claims court, you will need to make sure you have the right legal name and the correct mailing address for the airline. This is necessary to make sure the airline can be notified about the lawsuit later on.  

Where to find this information:

  • Look through any documents (contracts, tickets, receipts) the airline has sent you. Our clients sometimes find the legal name of a company under a company’s “Terms of Use.” 

  • Look through the airline’s contract of carriage. 

  • Run a search on the Secretary of State website in your State. 

  • You can use the Certificated Air Carriers List on the DOT’s website to find information on an airline’s legal name and “dba” (doing business as).

What does suing the "correct business entity" mean?

Let's say you flew "AIR Airline" and they damaged your bags. AIR Airline may be a tradename for ABC Airline, Inc. or even a more remote name like “The ABCDEFG Airline, Inc.”

Airlines sometimes use a name other than their real legal name when doing business, or airlines sometimes are referred to by their initials; for example, the "legal" name for TWA is "Trans World Airlines, Inc." This is called a fictitious business name, trade name, assumed name, or doing business as (“dba”). In general, airlines use fictitious business names or tradenames for marketing purposes if their name is too long.

What happens if I don't sue the correct business entity for the airline?

For one, you may be suing the wrong airline. If you win the lawsuit you will receive a "judgment" against the incorrect airline and this will bring problems down the road. 

The goal here is to sue the correct airline so you can collect your judgment.

Step 2. File Your Lawsuit in Small Claims Court 

Prepare the lawsuit against the airline using the proper form, this is usually available for download on your local small claims court website. Here is a guide for California small claims and a guide for New York small claims

The court will want to know why you are suing the airline, how much are you suing the airline for, and finally how you calculated the amount you are suing the airline for.


File the lawsuit. There are several ways you may be able to file the lawsuit: 

  1. In person at your local small claims court, 

  2. By mail 

  3. Electronically (not available in all courts), 

  4. By fax (not available in all courts). 

Step 3: Notify the Airline About the Small Claims Lawsuit

Once you file your claim with the small claims court clerk, you will then need to “serve” (notify) the airline. 

Each state will have its own rules on how to serve a lawsuit. Make sure to review the rules for serving that apply to you. The rules in each state tend to be very specific about where you can serve the airline, who you can serve on behalf of the airline, and how much time you have to serve the airline. 

Step 4: Prepare for Your Small Claims Hearing Against the Airline 

Preparing for your small claims hearing is one of the most important steps. The goal is to win your lawsuit against the airline and the more prepared you are, the better you set yourself up for the hearing. 

Here are tips that will help you win your lawsuit against an airline: 

  • Review the airline’s contract of carriage. Make sure you understand what the airline’s responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are under the airline’s contract.  

  • Research the law. It is good practice to read up on the law that supports your claim. You may want to consider consulting with a lawyer before you sue the airline. For example, if your claim is for negligence and you are trying to recover for personal injuries you may want to discuss the law surrounding negligence and personal injury with a lawyer. 

  • Locate your airline ticket. If you want a ticket refund you will need the information on your ticket to help you calculate how much to sue for in small claims court. 

  • Prepare your evidence. This is the most important part if you want to win at your small claims hearing. Consider including bag stubs and pictures of your baggage if your lawsuit is related to property damage (and ideally pictures of the bags before they were damaged). Also, consider including emails, text messages, and other correspondence with the airline. You will want to bring to the hearing 3 copies of the evidence (one copy for you, one copy for the judge, and one copy for the airline). 

  • Prepare your statement for the judge. At the hearing, you will be able to present your side of the story and so will the airline. Small claims hearings are usually informal and the judge will ask you questions about what happened. Be prepared to tell the judge why you are suing the airline. Background facts of your case, like where you flew into or out of. How much the airline owes you, and how you calculated how much they owe you. 

People Clerk can help you organize your evidence and sue an airline in small claims court. 

Alternative to Small Claims: File a Complaint Against the Airline with the Department of Transportation

Besides suing in small claims court you can also file a complaint against an airline with the DOT. The DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection (ACPD) reviews and responds to consumer complaints against airlines.

For example, the DOT investigates complaints from consumers regarding an airline’s frequent flyer programs. If you are unsatisfied with the basic terms of a frequent flyer program you can submit a complaint directly to the airline and if you are unsatisfied with the airline’s handling of the matter you can also file a complaint with the DOT. 

Learn how to file a complaint against an airline. 

Author

Claudia Diaz

Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia is a lawyer and certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts

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