CHICAGO (Reuters) - The United Airlines passenger dragged from a plane in Chicago in an incident that sparked international outrage and turned into a corporate public relations nightmare suffered a concussion and broken nose and will likely sue, his attorney said on Thursday.
“For a long time airlines, United in particular, have bullied us,” Thomas Demetrio told a news conference in Chicago, outlining the potential causes of action they may pursue against United and the city of Chicago.
“Will there be a lawsuit? Yeah, probably.”
David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor, was hospitalized after Chicago aviation police dragged him from the plane to make space for four crew members on the flight from the city’s O‘Hare International Airport to Louisville, Kentucky.
Demetrio said the law stated that passengers could not be ejected from planes with unreasonable force. Chicago runs the airport and the city’s department of aviation employs the three officers who dragged Dao off the plane.
Dao, who was discharged from the hospital on Wednesday night, suffered a significant concussion, a broken nose and lost two front teeth in the incident, and he will need to undergo reconstructive surgery, Demetrio said.
Video of Sunday’s incident taken by other passengers and showing Dao being dragged up the plane aisle and with a bloodied mouth circulated rapidly, causing public outrage that was not calmed by the airline’s initial response.
Dao’s daughter, Crystal Dao Pepper, told the news conference that the family was “horrified, shocked and sickened” by what happened to her father. One of Dao’s five children, Pepper, 33, called him a “wonderful father” and “loving grandfather” who had been returning from vacation in California.
“What happened to my dad should have never happened to any human being,” she said.
Demetrio said Dao had told him that being dragged down the plane aisle was more terrifying than his experience fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
Demetrio and a second attorney, Stephen Golan, said neither they nor the family had heard from United yet.
United, in a statement, said Munoz and the company “called Dr. Dao on numerous occasions to express our heartfelt and deepest apologies.” The company did not say how it would respond to any litigation, or whether the airline would try to settle.
Dao’s lawyers filed an emergency request with an Illinois state court on Wednesday to require United Continental Holdings Inc and the City of Chicago to preserve video recordings and other evidence related to the incident, which would be a precursor to a lawsuit.
Other attorneys said state courts are typically more favourable to plaintiffs.
Chicago’s law department spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment in an email, citing the pending litigation.
At a later city council aviation committee meeting, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said the department was investigating the incident and reviewing its training. Chicago Alderman Michael Zalewski, head of the committee, called the incident a nightmare that should have been avoidable.
United officials at the meeting apologised again and said they were reviewing all related company policies and would complete that process by April 30.
United Vice President John Slater said he was not at liberty to say who called the aviation police, but ruled out the plane’s captain. United has no set policy for physically forcing passengers to deboard, he added.
“Chicago employees should not be doing the dirty work for the friendly skies airline,” Chicago Alderman Edward Burke said at the meeting, adding Dao’s civil rights had been violated.
Evans and United officials said they could not discuss the incident in detail, citing the pending litigation. However, Chicago Department of Aviation policy calls for its officers to not board planes to handle customer service issues, Deputy Commissioner of Security Jeff Redding said.
Several aldermen voiced frustration that Chicago’s airport security force was deployed to handle a United problem, making the city a possible litigation target.
United Chief Executive Oscar Munoz is under pressure to contain a torrent of bad publicity and calls to boycott United, including from China, where people have been angered because Dao was an Asian-American passenger.
United shares have lost about 1 percent of their value since Monday. The stock closed down 1.2 percent on Thursday.
Munoz has sought in the last two days to make amends. In a statement on Tuesday he said he “deeply” apologised and was disturbed by what had happened. On Wednesday, he apologised to Dao, his family and United customers in an ABC News interview, saying the company would no longer use law enforcement officers to remove passengers from overbooked flights.
Demetrio called the apology “staged” and a response to the airline executive’s earlier comments, which were heavily criticized by many.
In a letter to employees on Monday, Munoz did not apologise to Dao and defended the airline’s actions, saying Dao had been “disruptive and belligerent.”
Dao was offered $800 (£640) for his seat by United but did not want to take it, Demetrio said. Munoz previously said the airline offered up to $1,000.
Dao’s wife was told to leave the plane after he was dragged off, Golan said.
The city of Chicago, which Demetrio said had also not contacted the attorneys and family, is also potentially involved in any lawsuit because of the officers’ involvement.
Chicago’s Aviation Department said on Wednesday that two more officers had been placed on paid leave in connection with the incident. One officer was placed on paid leave on Tuesday.
Given the wide public outrage, Dao is in a strong position as he prepares to launch a legal action, lawyers who represent airlines and passengers said.
“United, if they’re smart, will quickly and quietly settle the case,” said Justin Green, a partner at the law firm Kreindler & Kreindler in New York who represents airline passengers.
Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York, writing by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Frances Kerry and Richard Chang