By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A woman in a viral video claimed Delta Airlines broke her wheelchair. Wheelchairs are expensive and frequently custom-made for their users—and airlines are often accused of breaking or otherwise damaging them. If taken to court, complex litigation takes many forms.
Some lawsuits fall under the legal term of complex litigation, whether one plaintiff makes multiple, unrelated claims against a defendant or multiple parties do the same. A recent incident involving Delta Airlines serves as a fitting example of how complex litigation could work.
In a viral video, a woman reacted to Delta Airlines allegedly breaking her wheelchair while she flew with them. An investigation by The Washington Post found that airlines have damaged more than 15,000 wheelchairs since 2018. Should enough chair users decide to press charges, they could pool their grievances together in a class action suit.
In his video series Law School for Everyone, Peter J. Smith, J.D., the Arthur Selwyn Miller Research Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, explained how complex litigation works.
Understanding a Joinder of Parties
“In the old days, the general rule was that a lawsuit could involve only one plaintiff suing one defendant, but that’s different today too,” Professor Smith said. “Under the majority approach today, multiple plaintiffs can sue together if the claims that they’re asserting are related to each other. Similarly, a plaintiff can sue multiple defendants if the claims that she’s asserting against them are related.”
In one example he gave, if three people get into a three-car accident, one person can sue the others in one action for damages to his vehicle and for his injuries. His claims against them are factually related because they arose from the same incident and raise similar questions about the responsibilities for the money he’s had to pay as a result. Likewise, a passenger in the first car can join in the suit against the other two cars—at least for the cost of the passenger’s injuries. Courts find it more efficient to settle the entire matter at once.
Likewise, the driver of the second car, who the first driver is suing, may believe the accident was the first driver’s fault and may file a counter-claim against him for damages to the second driver’s car.
“Does that mean any party can assert any claim against anyone else in a lawsuit?” Professor Smith asked. “Not necessarily; things could get pretty confusing if they could. The usual approach is that a party can always assert a counter-claim.
“In fact, in most jurisdictions, a party must assert a counter-claim if it is related to the opposing party’s original claim.”
Gumming up the Works
If there are simply too many plaintiffs to fit in one courtroom, one plaintiff will often file a class action suit on the behalf of the other plaintiffs. That plaintiff will serve as a representative for the others in order to efficiently resolve their complaints all at once. Why not let them resolve their claims separately?
“If the lawsuits would all involve similar facts and similar claims, it might be costly for the courts—and the defendant—to have to litigate all of them,” Professor Smith said. “For example, if a train derails and 200 passengers are injured, all 200 lawsuits will have to resolve whether the train conductor was operating the train negligently.
“That seems wasteful, and it would be unfair if some of the plaintiffs succeeded in proving that the train was operated negligently and others failed; it was, after all, the same accident, and the conductor either was or wasn’t negligent.”
Furthermore, if individual claims are small enough—such as one million customers complaining of faulty $10 surcharges by a mobile phone provider—it would be unwise for each customer to file suit for a reimbursement of $10. It would also allow the phone provider to fraudulently obtain $10 million.
Class action suits and joinders of parties outline some of the possibilities that airlines may face if wheelchair users pursue legal action for the seeming pattern of neglect and damage to their chairs.