A trio of passengers have filed a class action lawsuit against Alaska Airlines and its Horizon Air subsidiary over the antics of off-duty pilot Joseph David Emerson.
Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Alaska Airlines + Horizon Airlines Over Off-Duty Pilot Cockpit Incident
Emerson, who now faces 167 criminal charges, allegedly went berserk in the cockpit of a Horizon Air flight from Everett, Washington (PAI) to San Francisco (SFO) on October 22, 2023. In a crazed moment, he attempted to shut down the engines, placing the lives of 77 passengers at risk. He later blamed the episode on his depression, fatigue, and the mushrooms he had ingested to self-medicate.
The lawsuit, which includes three named passengers and seeks to add the remaining passengers to create a class action lawsuit, aims to:
Compel a forthright public explanation from the involved airlines as to why they did not apply rigorous pre-flight security screening. Such preflight security screening could help identify pilots capable of sabotaging an aircraft,
Compel airline accountability for the effects this incident has had upon the passengers, and lastly,
Prevent future disasters caused by similar complacency and double standards as between ordinary passengers who are screened and before boarding and challenged before being allowed to sit in an exit-row versus highly trained flight crew, any of whom may be equally likely to suffer from mental health conditions and who have the knowledge and access to initiate a mass tragedy with their bare hands.
(that is taken verbatim)
Daniel Laurence, the attorney litigating this case, explained:
“The airlines need a wake-up call. We understand that most pilots are heroes every day for safely operating our airliners. But they are not immune from sleeplessness, drinking, drugs, or a mental health crisis. Airlines are charged with the lives of passengers and, by law, have the highest duty of care. Airlines can and should take simple and reasonable steps before each flight to challenge the presumption that every pilot who shows up at the gate is rested, sober, and in the right state of mind to fly. Emerson’s statements while in the air and shortly after his arrest show that had the airlines here done so, he would never have been allowed aboard. Our clients suffered needlessly as a result. Only luck prevented it from becoming a mass disaster.”
I take issue with that characterization of the case, which I will discuss below.
Does This Case Have Merit?
Here are the questions I am asking:
- How can an airline reasonably be expected to screen a pilot who shows no outward signs of intoxication or depression?
- Did the system not work exactly as it should have in preventing tragedy?
The allegation that “only luck prevented it form being a mass disaster” strikes me as quite an exaggeration. First, there was a struggle in the cockpit: the pilots of Alaska 2059 fought for control of their aircraft. Second, Emerson was restrained by flight attendants. He made another attempt to open the emergency exit door while the aircraft was diverting to Portland (PDX) but was restrained.
There was no luck here: there was skill and courage displayed by both pilots and flight attendants.
Perhaps every pilot should have to undergo a breathalyzer test prior to operating a flight, but would that have stopped this incident? A rapid-results blood test screening for other toxins is simply not tenable before every flight or duty day.
And if Emerson consumed the mushrooms shortly before the flight, he may have been perfectly “sober” when boarding and it was only in-flight that the mushrooms unexpectedly caused the psychotic incident.
I think as a nation we need to re-evaluate the way we look at mental health issues and that includes those impacting pilots. At the same time, I see no reason, at this point, to assume that Alaska or Horizon were negligent in letting Emerson into the flight deck.
The complaint alleges:
Defendants reasonably should have known of the danger Emerson presented to Flight 2059 on October 22, 2023, because Defendants should have known of the general hazards presented by unfit pilots, that the current regulatory system is only minimally effective in screening them out, and that at least some unfit pilots could be effectively detected at minimal cost and disruption to the airline’s business and profit.
This is malarkey. The idea that every pilot should be screened for drugs before every flight would crash the system…it is simply unworkable.
Passengers onboard Alaska 2059 have filed a lawsuit against Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, alleging the carriers could have done more to stop Joseph David Emerson from attempting to crash the aircraft.
Behind the subterfuge of concerns over safety and health is a money grab. I get it. We get it. And I expect Alaska Airlines will settle and each passenger will receive a generous payout.
But it seems to me that instead of saying the system failed we should be celebrating that the system worked: that a pilot with a death wish was stopped by both pilot and flight attendants. No system is foolproof, but it seems like our system works rather well in its current form…