District of Utah Substitutes Husband for Deceased Wife in Lawsuit Against American Airlines Under Utah’s “Revival” Statute, Rejecting the Airline’s Contention that All Tort Claims Were Extinguished Upon Her Death

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Tammy Sue Spears and her husband Robert Spears, residents of Idaho, commenced litigation against American Airlines in the District of Utah for personal injuries Mrs. Spears allegedly sustained during a flight from Salt Lake City to Charlotte. Plaintiffs alleged that, despite advance notice that Mrs. Spears – who was blind and confined to a wheelchair due to an amputation of her leg – would need the use of an aisle chair during flight, American Airlines removed the aisle chair from the plane after helping her board. Mrs. Spears alleged that, when she requested assistance getting to the lavatory during the flight, the flight attendants learned that the plane was not equipped with an aisle chair and instead, “lifted, dropped, pushed, dragged and injured” her.

While this case was pending, Mrs. Spears died. Following her death, Mr. Spears, as the personal representative of her estate, requested that he be substituted for Mrs. Spears. American Airlines opposed the motion, asserting that Mrs. Spears’ death extinguished her tort claims, and moved to
dismiss the entire case.

The court acknowledged that, “[t]o determine whether a party’s death extinguished common law tort claims such as Plaintiffs’, the court must look to state law.” In this diversity jurisdiction case, Mr. Spears asserted that Utah law, which has a statute that “revives” a decedent’s personal injury claims, applies, while American Airlines argued that Idaho law, which does not allow revival of a decedent’s claims, applies.

To resolve this conflict-of-law issue, the Court applied the “most significant relationship” test, which requires consideration of four factors: “(1) the place where the injury occurred; (2) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred; (3) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties; and (4) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered.” The Court determined that, “on balance, Utah has the most significant relationship to the case.”

The Court specifically found that factors one and three did not weigh in favor of either state because the injuries had “no definitive link to a particular state” since they occurred while the plane was in the air, and “[a]lthough Plaintiffs are residents of Idaho, American Airlines is an international airline based in Texas that has flights to and from many states, including Utah and Idaho.”

With respect to the second factor, the Court found that the alleged acts or omissions by American Airlines (to confirm that the plane was equipped with an aisle chair or warn Mrs. Spears that one would not be available) occurred on the ground in Utah and, thus, favored application of Utah Law.

Finally, the Court determined that the “most material[] allegations focus[ed] on actions that occurred after Mrs. Spears arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport, including preparation of the plane for flight, boarding, and in-flight events,” and that “Idaho had no relevant connection to those events.”

Accordingly, the Court concluded that Utah’s revival statute applied and Mr. Spears was entitled to substitution.

This case serves as a reminder that choice of law issues can permeate many aspects of an aviation personal injury case and it is important to recognize and, where possible, exploit differences between the key states’ laws. Spears v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 127747 (D. Utah July 7, 2021).

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