An Argument With a Baggage Handler Led to a Lawsuit Against American Airlines

Aug 16, 2018

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A lawsuit by a passenger against American Airlines points to questions on how airline and airport employees treat passengers, and what repercussions they face when they engage in unwarranted, wrongful behavior.

Debbie Cardarelli is suing American Airlines on behalf of her late husband, Richard (Rick) Cardarelli, for unlawful arrest, abuse of process and negligence after an incident that occurred while boarding Flight 4081 in March 2017.

On March 24, 2017, the Cardarellis were flying back to Rochester, NY, after a vacation in Miami and had a layover at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). When boarding flight 4081, a ramp agent working for Piedmont Airlines, a regional carrier operating for American, asked Rick Cardarelli to check his carry-on bag because there was no more space in the overhead bins.

After obliging, Cardarelli realized his eye drops were still in the bag — a medication he needed because of a cornea transplant. The employee, Tawanda Ward, claimed that for security reasons Cardarelli could not go back to open his bag even though it was still a few feet away. An argument ensued and he eventually got his eye drops before returning to his seat. Shortly afterwards police pulled him off the plane with no explanation and placed him in a holding cell overnight.

Ward alleged that Rick Cardarelli made a bomb threat, claiming his bag would blow up if he did not get his drops. Debbie Cardarelli followed her husband off the plane; the police refused to explain to her why he was being taken away. All passengers on board were forced to deplane as bomb-detecting dogs were sent in, originally reported

Rick Cardarelli was charged with disorderly conduct, making a terrorist threat and threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction. Bail was set at $25,000 cash, which was posted the next day, according to the Washington Post. His case went to trial in October 2017,  when Common Pleas Judge Vincent Melchiorre found him not guilty and declared Ward’s accusations not credible. In the current civil lawsuit, Debbie Cardarelli is suing American on behalf of her husband, who died of cancer in January. She is seeking more than $1 million in damages and punitive charges, the Washington Post reported. 

Given the litigation status, the plaintiff’s attorney declined to comment further, and so did American. The case highlights the possiblity that passengers might encounter undue legal jeopardy when accused by airline or airport employees, or by Transportation Security Administration agents. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently ruled that TSA officials cannot be sued over abuse allegations

A response to the lawsuit from the defendants, American Airlines and its regional affiliate, Piedmont Airlines, is due by August 31.

Featured photo by DANIEL SLIM/AFP/Getty Images

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