Lessons from the United Airlines debacle

Jeremy D. Rachlin, BridgeTower Media Newswires

There is simply no escaping the debacle of United Airlines Flight 3411, where four paying passengers who had already boarded their flight were involuntarily removed from the plane (“re-accommodated” according to United) so that the airline could seat four of its employees who apparently needed to deadhead to another departure city.

That alone might have been bad enough but for: (1) the numerous videos surfacing on social media of one of these passengers being forcibly removed from the flight and possibly knocked unconscious; and, (2) the United CEO’s entirely tone-deaf, two-stage response to the situation where he initially employed the absolute best of corporate public relations jargon (“re-accommodated”) and then engaged in some moderate victim-blaming to airline employees.

The stock market is not impressed. The public is not impressed. It’s a bad look. And I’m sure many lawyers, like me, treated this like a torts question from the Bar Exam and immediately brought to bear all the causes of action which might accrue to the affected passengers.

There are also a few takeaways that I believe lawyers can benefit as we view this situation unfold:

Candidly own up to an ugly situation

There are going to be plenty of times when we have bad news to share with our clients. We may learn of the entry of an order of judgment against our client, the existence of new evidence or new law that destroys our case, or some other relief granted to the other side. Do not engage in lawyerly doublespeak or jargon with your clients. Tell them exactly what happened, why it happened and any possible ways to respond, including appeal (and appeal timelines), if necessary.

It may be appropriate to include commentary on facts that you think the jury or the judge or the magistrate failed to grasp or misconstrued. But, as tempting as it might be to shift the blame, it will not change the outcome.

Understand the optics of your case

One of the biggest apparent failures of United’s CEO is that he apparently does not understand the optics of the situation. A customer base which already is predisposed to distrust airlines sympathizes with paying customers being thrown off an airplane (after they’ve already inserted the buckle and tightened the belt squarely across their waist) only to make room for non-paying airline employees.

Similarly, there will be times when we may represent an unsympathetic plaintiff. We may have every right and legitimate reason to pursue the relief we are seeking and our client may be very much aggrieved. But we may be pursuing relief against a sympathetic defendant and the optics of our case may not be the best. It is important to convey to your client how your case is likely to present to the judge or jury and to explain that, while the law and the facts of the case at hand are supposed to control, cases are not actually tried in a total vacuum of emotion.

Don’t double-down

When you feel the argument slipping away and you feel that the judge just doesn’t buy the argument that you are making, don’t double-down on the argument. Just as the United CEO, in the face of unrelenting public ridicule for his initial response to the Flight 3411 debacle, made matters so much worse by issuing a statement to all United employees (which nearly immediately became public) wherein he blamed nearly everybody but the airline itself, know when you’re fighting a losing battle. Abandon that line of argument if necessary. Find a new approach or message.  And if there is no new approach or message, accept the loss and move on to damage control.

In conclusion, to all of my criminal defense attorney readers, I hope that your clients are not “re-accommodated.”