Man Sues American Airlines For Seating Him Next to Two Obese Passengers

An Australian man is suing American Airlines after being ‘crushed’ by large seatmates on a Los Angeles – Sydney flight.

The Wollongong man says he was forced to crouch, kneel, brace and stand throughout the lengthy flight, which also aggravated his existing condition of curvature of the spine.

…’The airline could have put me in a crew seat or moved people around but they did nothing.’

The man reportedly asked if he could spend the flight sitting in the lavatory but was told no.

As a result of the fact that American Airlines failed to reseat him or even offer a viable alternative, he suffered bodily injuries by contorting his body within the cramped space caused by the intrusion of the grossly obese passenger sitting next to him.

One strange element to the story is that he was apparently in a window seat yet claims to have been crushed by two large passengers. Perhaps the large passenger in the aisle encroached on the middle seat, causing the large passenger in the middle to spill over even more into the window.

Sitting next to a large passenger may not be pleasant, but it’s a known hazard of economy flying.

My sympathy for an airline with 10-abreast seating in coach on a Boeing 777 isn’t particularly strong. And indeed while this configuration is common (see for instance Emirates, Air France) it’s also tighter than traditionally offered.

A judgment for the plaintiff could be endorsing larger economy seats. But that takes up more space on the plane – fewer people on the plane — and thus more expensive tickets for everyone which is the opposite of what people in general have a demonstrated preference for.

You may like this result but consider that it’s a wealth transfer from less well off travelers to more well off one. And you can consider buying premium economy.

An alternative is Southwest’s policy of making passengers of size purchase two seats — and then have one seat refunded to them if the flight isn’t full. Southwest therefore tries to accommodate them with enough space for free if they can, but on a full flight the passenger has to pay for enough space so as not to encroach on the space of others. This policy draws substantial fire quite regularly.

Southwest Airlines Economy

Kevin Smith made headlines in 2010 over Southwest Airlines’ customer of size policy, vowing never to fly the airline again. He flew them again in 2011 and had another altercation over the policy.

It sucks to have to sit next to someone who limits your space. It’s not comfortable for them either. It’s tough to say they ought to spend more money to travel, but the scarce resource on a plane is space and it doesn’t seem unfair for each person to pay for the space they occupy.

Not everything that’s uncomfortable ought to be actionable, and it’s not obvious that the airline did anything improper here. But people love to hate airlines so any suit that survives summary judgment is a risk to the carrier. It’s hard to imagine it’s worth actually suing for just $100,000 though.

Sometimes unfortunate situations occur, being uncomfortable on a long flight is one of those. If real injury occurred that’s doubly unfortunate, although “aggravated his existing condition of curvature of the spine” is going to be pretty hard to demonstrate.

The claim is being made under the Montreal Convention for accidents but being seated next to a large passenger is quite common.

(HT: Alan H.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Define “large”. I sat next to a man who more than overflowed onto my armrest and seat on a flight from London to Phoenix, I had no choice but to lean into the passenger on my other side, who, fortunately, was my spouse., even then, the “large” man’s fat rolls pressed against me for the entire flight. If you don’t fit in one seat, you should pay and sit in 2 seats.

  2. Hmmmm… if a passenger was spilling over onto my seat (especially on such a long flight) I think I’d take it up with the passenger and enlist the help of a flight attendant.
    I paid for a complete seat, not a partial.

  3. People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some have children who bounce around their row. Others have long, long legs that reach far under the seat in front of them. Others fart a lot and some have really bad body odor. Some drink heavily and spill food and drink all over the place. And others get down on the floor to pray. When airlines force us into smaller and smaller spaces, there are going to be more altercations. It isn’t making it easier for us.

  4. So I am a “passenger of size” and want to correct you on Southwest policy. It used to work as Gary laid out above, but now they refund the second seat regardless of if the flight is sold out of not. They want you to book the second seat so they know in their computer to account for the seat, but I have always gotten the second seat refunded after the flight, with no issues. I encourage others who need this second seat to also do this to avoid inconveniencing other fliers. And a big shout out to SW for this forward thinking policy, it’s one of the many reasons that I believe they have become the best domestic airline in our country.

  5. I’m left wondering why people have issues with Southwest’s policy.

    It’s often suggested too tall people that they buy up to Premium Economy or Business Class if they need more room so why is it wrong to suggest to someone who is large in a different direction that they should purchase more space too?

    In the case of the tall person he/she is merely doing himself/herself a disservice by not paying for more space while the person of size is affecting those around him/her.

    The thinking seems to be that it’s unfair to “punish” people of size (because it’s not their fault their large) but it’s ok to “punish” those around them who are left with less room than they purchased despite this not being their fault either.

  6. How big do you have to be to not fit in a seat? how does southwest determine that? Wouldnt a body builder with a large chest and arms also take up space? I mean if someone is 300+ lbs they should buy a second seat but with airlines constantly shrinking seat space i grow very skeptical. We know a large portion of the American population is obese, so I think airlines need to factor that in when they determine seat size otherwise it feels like a money grab by using planes where the seats are too small.

  7. Wow there’s some bad grammar in my last comment!

    Too = to
    Their large = they’re large

    Sorry! 🙂

  8. Its airline responsibility to provide the seat that a passenger has paid for. If an obese passenger occupies another passenger’s seat and the other passenger complains (before plane door are closed), airline is responsible to resolve the issue. If no solution is found the airline is responsible to ask the obese passenger to leave the plane. Obese passenger and his decision not to buy more than one seat is the cause of problem, but s/he is not responsible to solve the problem onboard.

  9. This makes me want to fly Southwest because of such a logical policy. I have Zero sympathy for the obese flyer who tries to cram themselves into economy when they already know they won’t fit.

  10. Several years ago, I was stuck in a middle seat with very obese passengers on both sides of me. Their fat spilled over the armrests into my space. Very uncomfortable. Luckily, it was only LGA-PIT! I didn’t cause a scene, or even tell anybody, other than family and friends (and now all of you). I’m not sure how I would have reacted if it was a longer flight.

  11. I believe that Southwest’s policy is that if you require a seat belt extension, you’re a “passenger of size”.

  12. To answer those who want to know how southwest defines the policy, it’s any passenger who encroaches upon any part of the neighboring seat(s). They further point out that the armrest is the definitive boundary of the seat. They really have the most sensible policy of any airline regarding this imho. One of my friends is “of size” and routinely purchases domestic first, if available, in order to make sure he ISN’T crushing his neighbor. The situation is a sad commentary of our society’s general selfishness in rarely considering how our decisions affect others.

  13. One comment: I always wear long sleeves on airplanes to avoid have to feel someone bare skin skin against mine.

    (1) Will airlines sell two seats to one passenger?
    (2) In an overbooking situation, would the airline demand the “empty” seat be filled?

  14. I buy two seats on a regular basis.. They cannot take the empty seat unless I ok it and get compensation..

  15. IMO – it is a two edged sword, I am 6ft and 210 lbs., I take up my seat space with broad shoulders, but I do not encroach on others and I always selected a aisle seat to give myself a little lean out space if needed.

    First – Passengers have to understand that other passengers are paying for their seat and should get the entire seat and space that comes with the seat they selected when they selected or were assigned a seat.

    But the Airlines should be mandated by DOT to have reasonably sized seats and space for each passenger.

    Also as Ziggy said; if a person overflow’s and yes 99.9% of them know who they are, then the FA or Gate Agent should instruct them they are to board last! And if it appears that there will be a problem just tell move them to another seat and no not an upgrade, a person should not get an upgrade because they choose to be obese. If the FA or GA cannot move them to a seat where they will not encroach on others space simply tell them they will have to wait for another flight or are not flying.
    Lastly I hope the plaintiff in this case wins, I also he other plaintiffs with similar cases win, I also hope DOT is forced to put in strict mandates on overflowing passengers getting moved or bumped off a plane, IMO this is the only to get them to take notice.

  16. Why would anyone want to ‘overflow’ unto a fellow (stranger) passenger? Buy two seats or fork up for the premium economy. Why should anyone have to suffer another person’s personal issues? I suffer from claustrophobia and I make sure I pay for the aisle seat. I could never fly crushed by another person. I have had FA’s continuously ask me if I needed anything when I stand by their stations during long flights to stretch my legs. They don’t like me ‘invading’ their space but it is ok to sandwich someone by the XXL passenger? It really is becoming a question of ‘us against them’, with the airlines making life more and more difficult for their customers.

  17. What does it take these days to encroach on your neighbor’s space? A friend of mine, who is not of freakish proportions, had the middle seat recently, and he said he took up space on both sides with his shoulders! There was no overhanging fat. Is there an answer to this given we are sold seats about the size of a primary grade desk chair?

  18. Fat people used to be few and far between (farther the better) but with the rise of slobby talk radio spewing right wing gas America started to fatten to the exact extent it became more conservative. So now you go to deep red places like Trump rallies, Oklahoma and midwest or the south and almost everyone is over 300 pounds. I was in CiCi’s pizza in OKC and saw two 500 pounders who needed two parlor chairs, throwing pizza at CNN when it showed Obama. The gas alone almost killed me.

  19. I wondered how long it would take for this to somehow turn political…

    BTW… @Greg… please change your I.D. icon.. you’re giving surfers are worse rep. 😉 and what were you doing in OKC? and at a CICI’s no less.

  20. Greg, I know plenty of obese liberals, too. The obesity problem in the U.S. is not limited to political preferences.

  21. it seems that most draw a distinction between fat people and big people b/c they feel that fat people are to blame for their size. a broad shouldered man that works out 5 days a week will still encroach upon your space but that seems to be socially acceptable. just a weird disconnect in thinking about the size problem.

  22. I have a lower-back condition that causes discomfort when sitting for extended periods of time. The more “stiffly” I have to sit, the worse the condition is. It can make flying and driving for periods over 20 minutes very difficult, but I have learned to shift positions in a way that makes it manageable.

    However, in situations where I am unable to shift and especially if I have to sit in an awkward position for long periods of time, a cyclical process begins (pain – muscles tighten in response – more pain – more tightness – etc) that can take weeks to reverse and/or can only be halted by prescription medication (which has its own side-effects).

    So – all of that is to say I can relate to a man who says that being crammed and forced to sit unnaturally in his seat aggravated an existing condition he has in his spine (I always avoid the window for that reason by the way). I feel for people who don’t fit in the airline seats, but whether you are a mere peasant who paid a few pennies or a rich fat cat who burned $2k on your seat, it is generally understood that there is a 3-dimensional “invisible block” of space that was purchased for the duration of the flight – and I do think the airline is accountable to provide that space.

    Some might say “nowhere does it say you get X amount of space” (I have heard some form of this with the argument over reclining seats and reclining seat-stoppers). Fair enough – but everybody generally understands this concept and I would argue that at some level it is clearly implied. So if it’s not clearly defined I think the vast majority of travelers would be *thrilled* to have that space clearly articulated in a legally-binding standard that all airlines are held to, and now seems like a great time to do it.

    Last thing – if Southwest makes someone buy a second ticket on a full flight, and that person is not reimbursed because the flight is full – the person who had to sit next to that person and have his/her space violated the entire flight should receive the proceeds from that second ticket in the form of a refund or at minimum credit towards a future flight.

  23. Pre-AA/US merger, I was rebooked from AA onto a US flight from FLL-NYC via CLT, where I was seated in the back of the plane, middle row, between two obese passengers. I wrote to customer relations after that flight, and their suggestion was that *I* could buy 2 seats to avoid “passengers of size.”

    N.B., looking at the location of AA non-coastal hubs, it’s hardly surprising that my personal space is regularly encroached upon by much larger passengers (I’m 6’/200 lbs with broad shoulders, yet I manage to stay in my seat with no overflow).

  24. I have never paid attention to seat width before, but after experiencing how uncomfortable it can be to fly in a 17″ wide seat I started checking all aircraft before booking to try to avoid getting squeezed – even though I am “normal” height and weight. 17″, which is becoming the new normal for many airlines, with some pushing to go even narrower, is not enough for most people. Huge difference between that and 18″ . Between that and the race to get rid of every inch of human legroom, I think it’s really time for some regulation of airlines to meet the bare minimum for safely transporting people without requiring them to fold themselves into a seat. That would probably not have helped in this situation but it’s become a problem for people of all sizes.

  25. This issues is also one at events such as concerts and sports. I have attended games where the person next to me is obese, and it irks me to no end to have to lean to one side the entire time. I have taken the approach of sticking my elbows on my armrest and not allowing the space I paid for to be occupied by someone else. Bottom line : If you are obese you do not have the “right” to make life for those around you miserable. The policy should be to purchase two seats. The airlines have their issues, but I would fully support a policy which requires people to purchase 2 seats in these circumstances.

  26. @Ziggy

    “because it’s not their fault their large”
    Let the mental gymnastics begin!

  27. @Greg, going to CiCi’s is your problem. I’ve seen less hair on the floor of a barber shop than there is in the food at CiCi’s.

  28. Definition of a “seat” was put in place years ago by Southwest (possibly because the average size of Southwest passengers was wider than the average on other carriers). Those requirements have been mentioned by others in this thread; they include the definition of the seat boundary as being the arm rest. Requirement for an extender was also added to further delineate acceptable dimensions beyond which the purchase of a second seat was mandated. These definitions and requirements in the contract of carriage have withstood the test of litigation, with Southwest prevailing in every instance.
    More recently, American Airlines, the carrier in question here has also defined the “seat”. American requires passengers to purchase a second seat if they need a seat belt extension and their body “extends more than 1 inch beyond the outermost edge of the armrest.”
    If one of the passengers in this case met both of these criteria, the airline should be bound to comply with their contractual obligation. Obviously several avenues are available to bring the passenger (or passengers) into compliance while also providing the “seat” purchased by the plaintiff passenger.
    Most of those remedies are best undertaken before the flight closes and the door is shut. As usual, the drama ramps up into public view when a ‘too little, too late’ scenario ensues. It wouldn’t make the news if the issue had been corrected timely.

  29. 6’1 here, not fat but with my frame I fill a seat. I don’t really fit economy so I try not to fly economy – that choice doesn’t always exist. I’m not going to encroach on others (I don’t but I’m cramped) and I certainly don’t want them encroaching on me. I have nothing but sympathy for the guy here. You should be given a whole seat if you’ve paid for it. Sorry but if you’re big it’s your responsibility to manage the situation which might involve extra cost. If you’re tall there’s no help aside from your own wallet after all.

  30. There’s a much better way to handle this situation. Take a selfie, then get up and ask to be reseated in a seat with the space you paid for. If denied escalate to Purser and if necessary disembark and take it up with the gate agent. Video all interactions with airline personnel to ensure accuracy.
    An airline ticket is a contract and the airline is obligated to provide you with the space you purchased. If it doesn’t you can seek specific performance on another flight or a refund. There is no reason to accept a product that does not meet the required specifications, particularly if the doors have not closed.

  31. My friend took me to CiCi’ s which had cardboard pizza I didnt eat but was only out $4. While I crave the contempt of fat rightists who define what the whole modern world reviles and laughs at, explain why are ALL red states ALL fat. We don’t even have a fat person in my beach neighborhood.

    BTW I teach an int’l surfing class all the world citizens pass through and they confirm there is no further right wing nuttery on earth than here. After Bush they even teach this in their schools to warn against rightist ruin of their countries.

  32. This is a complicated topic. In part because, as has been stated, in at least one comment above, sometimes you can be in fantastic shape but be broad shouldered and still encroach on someone else’s space. Someone built like The Rock is not going to be a comfortable one to sit next to. That’s obviously not an obesity problem. In fact, I have over my life been in both excellent shape and obese. I don’t think I, or anyone sitting next to me, was any more comfortable when I was in excellent shape than when I was obese.

    And, then you add onto that someone who might be tall, and you can compound the problem as you have to figure out where to stash your legs and knees, which isn’t always easy.

  33. United has a policy that says if a person is too big to be dragged down the aisle they are considered of size and are eligible for an upgrade.

  34. Gary, in what way is increasing ticket prices in exchange for larger standard coach seats “a wealth transfer from less well off travelers to more well off,” other than in the theoretical sense that anything other than “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs” is such a transfer? (And in that sense, all ticket pricing is a “wealth transfer.”)

    I’m not obtaining wealth from poorer passengers when we all pay more money for a larger economy seat; I’m parting with more wealth in exchange for more space, as are they (though they feel it more).

  35. I don’t mind pressing the flesh on an airline seat with a person next to me spreading over into my space. I know all about our zones of privacy and all that and outside of an airline setting I wouldn’t want to be ThisClose to people, but to be honest it really doesn’t bother me, I’m always wearing pants and a long sleeved shirt so it’s never skin to skin. I have told passengers seated next to me, “I don’t mind if we press the flesh a little, it doesn’t bother me.” I have done this maybe 3 or 4 times over the years and the person seated next to me is kind of surprised to hear me say that but then they get a look of appreciation and say, “Thanks.” I think it is a cultural thing, in some cultures being cramped in and having skin to skin contact in certain situations is the norm.

    Almost all the flights I take are long flights so why not get it out in the open and the person next to me isn’t stressing about it. Since it doesn’t bother me why not be kind? Out of courtesy for the person behind me I seldom recline either. I may recline a little bit but certainly not for the full transatlantic flight. Last month there was a tall man behind me, he was really tall, the reclining really doesn’t do that much for me anyway so why cramp up the person behind me? I fly about 50% economy & 50% economy plus.

  36. Can we all agree that the passenger stuck in the middle seat gets dibs on the armrests if she or he wants them? And that it’s OK to gently bump arms to assert your middle seat right to the armrests to cut your misery?

    I would never knowingly fly in a middle seat and have only done so once or twice when my only other option was to wait for the next flight.

  37. ok, flight is full according to the article. where would he move? crew seat? aint happening, you cant sit there. he wanted the crew to move people around. Around to where, flight is full.
    He sat next to 2 obese passengers? Actually, No. He had a window seat. thats one passenger next to him.

  38. As far as I know, most economy plus adds leg room but has exactly the same width seats and number of seats per row. So, buying up to economy plus does nothing for more room for “wide bodies” in coach. I have had more “little people” intrude on my space than heavy weights on planes. think about it the armrest claimers, the knee spreaders, are typically average sized but don’t want to be short changed, no pun intended. I’ve even had a smallish lady sitting on the aisle, spread out her self and her gear across the middle seat I had purchased next to my window seat. I tried to indicate to her with my two boarding passes that I had purchased both seats but she thought it was just a random empty middle seat. So, try telling a presumptuous smallish person that that extra space was paid for and you don’t necessarily care to share what you paid for either. Good luck with that exchange.
    If airlines cram more and more people onto flights with smaller seats and less room, and no one complains, then they will continue to do so. Then it won’t just be the tall or the heavy who are inconvenienced. If you take an aisle seat to get a bit of space that way, it doesn’t take long to notice how few flight attendants can make it down the aisle without bumping their wideness into passengers on the aisle. Maybe the wider flight attendants tend to be more sympathetic to the passengers who can reach things on the top shelf unassisted or are otherwise not small, or narrow minded.

  39. As someone who has flown being both fit & heavier and is naturally just a bigger person (6′ lady here) I think this guy is ridiculous and suffering from “I don’t want to touch the yucky fat” syndrome. He could have talked to the person next to him and let them know he needs to reposition due to his health and that they will have to work with him. I’m sure the passenger would have been accommodating (even if it meant he had to lean into them). The airline could have also partially refunded his ticket for the inconvenience. Unfortunately sometimes larger people don’t realize they won’t fit in the seat. I am hippy and have a booty & thicker thighs. I don’t have any issue buckling the lapbelt (with slack) but my hips spilled over. At the time there was NO WAY anyone would have known that by looking at me. Sometimes people just carry their weight in odd ways (and they would spill over and not be considered huge & morbidly obese).
    Maybe seats should be structured with walls so no one can spill into anyone’s space? This would also help with the person next to you blasting air or turning on a light when you’re trying to sleep. It would also finally eradicate the fight over the 2 inside armrests and having to interact with someone who is too chatty (WHY CAN’T THEY SEE I’M TRYING TO READ MY BOOK?!?).
    If you feel like walls aren’t a good idea and aren’t willing to talk to the big person next to you to try to work out a comfortable solution, then just get over yourself and endure the flight or ask to be moved and pay the difference if needed. You are the one with the problem, the overflowing person is likely WAAAAY more uncomfortable than you are (my hips ended up bruised from the armrests) and they are putting up with it because they need to get wherever they are going. I feel like this argument is the same as those people who complain about being seated next to an infant/ toddler and then whine that the kid was being a kid. If you are the unhappy one, you move or help petition for larger seats and DO NOT complain about flights becoming more expensive to accommodate this. Can’t have it both ways.

  40. The airlines should require that all arm rests are down during take off. So if you can’t fit within the one seat with the arm rest down – then you either move to a seat with a vacant middle – or if full – then be removed from the aircraft and be required to buy the second seat on the next flight.

    Happened to me once (when rebooked due to cancelled flight) Passenger took 1 1/2 of the aisle seat. Passenger in the middle had to take 1/4 of my seat so we only had 3/4 of a seat.

  41. Why would a passenger of size encroach on another passenger’s space without purchasing an appropriately sized seat? One of my acquaintances, in complete denial, has never acknowledged her size to herself. Isn’t there a lot of that going around?

  42. Between incidents such as this, and innovations like Seatguru, I believe we’re finally past customers booking based on “ah… whatever’s cheapest”. This makes one question why American and United think now’s the opportune time to become a low-cost-carrier.

  43. This is my theory of why we die. Even at 30,000 feet, hurtling at 300 mph, to our destination, we are never satisfied, nor are able to get along with each other.

  44. Why does no one question why the airlines have decided to make infant sized seats for adult sized people? I have flown many times with people of all shapes and sizes. It is not the person’s fault it is the airlines for cramming everyone in like a sardine. People have purchased the extra seat on my plane before and then it was given to someone on standby or luggage stuck in the seat from a previous overbooked flight. Stop overbooking and create comfortable seating. With the cost of flying most people can barely afford the seat they purchase let alone a second seat. If the airlines put in larger, better seating for all they would save money on lawsuits. Fat shaming is just as bad as someone shaming others for their sexuality, race, gender, etc. It is no different You people making nasty comments should be ashamed of yourselves. I would rather sit next to someone who is larger than screaming, smelly kids and drunks who cannot control themselves.

  45. Sickofrudepeopleandsmallseats says: =>”Fat shaming is just as bad as someone shaming others for their sexuality, race, gender, etc. It is no different You people making nasty comments should be ashamed of yourselves.”
    I totally agree. Everybody should QUIT being so territorial and instead display kindness. So WHAT if you press the flesh a bit because the person next to you is a large person. It is not like you are being sexually assaulted. Get over it, it is only like what 8 hours transcontinental or maybe 12 hours to Australia. Is it worth it, is it really worth it to make such a fuss? If you have a medical condition, like the person with the bad back, simply in a kind manner discuss it with your seatmate. Ask if they wouldn’t mind standing for a time throughout the flight so that you can re-position. 99.9% of the public will agree. When you are really up against it and in pain simply TALK to your seatmate, they will offer to maybe say, “You can stretch your feet in my space for a while if it helps you.”

    I had one hip replaced and my other one is going, I have flown with really painful joint conditions, all I did was talk to my seatmates and they understood, they understood when I had to encroach for a little while, to reposition myself to alleviate pain. Suffering in silence only internally escalates your anger/frustration. Don’t suffer in silence, talk to your seatmates. I have needed to encroach sometimes, so for a heavy person encroaching in my space is no big deal. Talk, in a soft voice, you’ll be amazed at the response you will receive.

  46. I think airlines should measure people in seated position before they are allowed to board the plane. I am sick of gigantic fat asses spilling their obesity onto onto my seat. Buy 2 seats you cheap slobs.

  47. To the guy blaming Trump, isn’t it Liberals who are pushing the whole Fat Acceptance movement?

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