- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

A Silver Spring, Md., family who lost five suitcases on an American Airlines flight won a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that could make its claim checks as valuable as lottery tickets.

It also could require payment to thousands of other international airline travelers who checked luggage and never saw their belongings again.

The high court refused without comment to review a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia's decision allowing Maria Cruz and 13 family members to collect more than the $9.07 a pound the airline offered. The family is demanding $15,000.

The court's refusal to review left in place the lower court order reinstating Mrs. Cruz's plea to make the family's case a class action. Consequently, American's refusal to settle for $15,000 could turn into a bonanza for travelers whose luggage has been lost a financial hit for American as well as for other airlines subject to similar lawsuits by travelers, who complain lost luggage is a way of life.

"Why does this sound so familiar?" Circuit Judge Laurence H. Silberman mused in a parenthetical note amidst his recitation of the facts in his Oct. 12 opinion granting Mrs. Cruz's appeal.

If the lower court certifies a class of travelers, it could be a large crowd because more than 450,000 pieces of baggage are delayed, lost or stolen each year, said the Air Transport Association of America, which includes major U.S. airlines and five foreign carriers.

The ATAA said the ruling left standing yesterday "will senselessly harm the airlines and raise the cost of air travel for their passengers."

Mrs. Cruz's family of 14 checked 28 suitcases on the Dec. 21, 1995, flight from Washington to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, via Miami. Only 23 arrived with them. One more came later, but it was damaged and empty.

When the Cruzes sued, the airline offered to settle for $4,535, and then $7,500. At that point, Mrs. Cruz held out for $10,000, her lawyer, Leonard Bebchick said yesterday. Mrs. Cruz is, incidentally, Mr. Bebchick's cleaning lady.

The $4,535 figure represented the Warsaw Treaty maximum of $9.07 a pound on international flights. Since the airline had not noted the weight on each bag tag as the treaty then required, the airline estimated the weight of each bag at 100 pounds.

The settlement was refused. A trial judge called the airline's omission of the written weight a technicality and dismissed the case. The three-judge Circuit Court panel reinstated it, along with the family's request to certify it as a class action, and yesterday's decision leaves that order in place.

"I would estimate there are over 100,000 people out there … just on the American Airlines case," said Mr. Bebchick, who said he since has filed similar class actions on behalf of passengers from United, Delta and Northwest airlines.

The requirement to record the weight was changed in March 1999. Owners of lost or damaged luggage have two years to make their claims, so the ATAA said similar lawsuits against other airlines, including foreign carriers, may be filed until March.

Among other Supreme Court actions yesterday, the justices:

• Rejected Avis Rent a Car's claim that a court placed an unprecedented "restraint on future speech" by forcing it to stop manager John Lawrence from using bigoted language against Hispanic employees at San Francisco International Airport. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from a decision issued without other comment. Avis also must pay a $135,000 award to eight Hispanic employees for Mr. Lawrence's actions.

• Agreed to review the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' authority to regulate use of land containing waters that are home to migrating birds. It took a case brought by 23 Illinois cities seeking to build a landfill in Cook County on the site of a former strip mine.

• Ruled 7-2 in a Vermont case that congressional authority for private citizens to file fraud lawsuits on behalf of the federal government does not apply to states accused of cheating the government. States cannot be deemed "persons" under the 1863 False Claims Act. The court made that judgment in upholding a law that produced an estimated $3.5 billion in judgments since 1986 from large companies such as Chevron Corp. and Beverly Enterprises, a health care company. Most of the money went to the U.S. Treasury, but $550 million was paid to whistleblowers who filed suit in the name of the federal government.

• Narrowed the scope of a federal anti-arson law. In a unanimous decision, it overturned Dewey J. Jones' conviction and 30-year sentence for heaving a Molotov cocktail that set fire to his cousin's home in Fort Wayne, Ind. The court ruled that even though a mortgage holder and insurer were in other states, that did not make the crime a federal offense under the Constitution's "interstate commerce" clause.

• Agreed to consider when a ruling that imposes tougher penalties for a crime can be used to punish crimes committed before that decision was rendered. The Tennessee case involves a murder conviction against Wilbert K. Rogers for stabbing James Bowdery in the chest on May 7, 1994. Mr. Bowdery died 15 months after the attack. Rogers, who is serving 33 years in the case, claims the state's longtime "year and a day" rule applied even though a court canceled it after the crime was committed.

• Extended last week's ruling limiting the reach in federal civil courts of the Violence Against Women Act. The court barred the act's use in a lawsuit by three women against Provo chiropractor Bryon Rosquist, who denied their charges that he groped them sexually when they worked for him. The justices threw out an appeals court ruling that said any unwanted sexual touching is a "crime of violence."

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