Somes v. United Airlines

In 1995, 39 year old Steven Somes died of a cardiac arrest on a United Airlines flight from Boston to San Francisco. The claim against United was based on the failure to have an automatic external defibrillator ("AED") on board Mr. Somes' plane, which would have saved his life. Several obstacles stood in the way of successful resolution: AEDs had not been required by the federal government in 1995; no major U.S. airline carried them in 1995; and the extensive regulation of airlines by the federal government gave basis to a defense that federal law preempted state law, such that no claim was available.

Paul, John, and colleagues at the firm made extensive investigation into the medical aspects of cardiac arrest, the technological history of AEDs, the U.S. passenger airline industry, and use of AEDs by foreign airlines beginning in the early 1990s. On behalf of Steven Somes's widow Jamie, a wrongful death action was filed against United in January 1998.

The memorandum of law against preemption was prepared by John and Paul. Federal District Court Judge Morris Lasker largely adopted its reasoning in his lengthy written opinion. Pre-trial discovery included extensive motion practice and depositions in England and France. In the course of obtaining complete records of the airline industry's internal deliberations on the subject of AEDs, Paul and John obtained substantial sanctions against the principal lobby group of the U.S. domestic airline industry, the Washington D.C.-based Airline Transport Association. Somes' lawyers were prepared to prove that United — like most other major U.S. airlines — was well aware in 1995 of the inexpensive, reliable, and proven life-saving capacity of AEDs, but refused to install them on grounds of cost. United settled the case before trial, the terms of which remain confidential.

According to a recent New York Times assessment, the Somes case was instrumental in prompting the U.S. airline industry to carry AEDs on passenger planes. The case has also been recognized as a milestone in the cause of Public Access Defibrillation ("PAD"), countering the wide-spread but misguided perception that supposed liabilities associated with AEDs outweigh the benefits of installing them. Paul and John also handled other wrongful death claims against airlines for failure to have an AED, including suits filed in Chicago against Continental Airlines, which was settled in the summer of 2002, against Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis (settled in 2003) and against Frontier Airlines, which settled shortly before trial in 2003.