United Airlines vs. David Dao: Our Lawsuit Analysis

On April 9, 2017, Dr. David Dao became the subject of a media firestorm. He was on a United Airline flight, awaiting takeoff with his fellow passengers, when it was announced that four people needed to get off the overbooked flight, because four airline employees needed to board the plane to travel to their next destination.

Like they usually do in these situations, the staff offered vouchers to anyone who volunteered to disembark. The offers began at $400 dollars per seat and gradually increased, going up to $800. But no one volunteered, and the airline began randomly selecting people to leave the plane. Three chosen passengers left the plane, but Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat. He said that he had patients awaiting him the next day, and didn’t have time to catch another flight.

At his refusal, United Airlines called in law enforcement authorities. Dr. Dao was forcibly removed from the plane, and suffered visible injuries as a result. The wildly-viewed pictures of the incident show his bloody face, broken teeth, and dazed, concussed expression.

The incident was disturbing, and naturally, Dr. Dao sued United Airlines for the trauma. Since his plight drew national attention, many people are now wondering about the settlement. How much did he win? Thousands? Millions? Surely, if the woman who spilled hot McDonald’s coffee on her lap got $1 million, Dr. Dao deserves $5 million, right?


The exact terms of the settlement agreement are confidential, as most settlements are, so we can only guess at what the final dollar figure was. However, this case presents several interesting legal issues that might affect the verdict.


The first question in every lawsuit is: whose fault is it? Who is liable? In this case, most people would automatically point to United Airlines. However, it is important to keep in mind that like tickets to a baseball game, a tickets to board an airplane is actually a type of license. It  can be revoked at any time. It just depends on what the terms and conditions say.


Secondly, when United Airlines did decide to remove Dr. Dao from the plane, they did not send in a team of flight attendants and pilots to do so. Rather, they called in law enforcement authorities, who they have no control or authority over. In other words, they couldn’t direct the officer on how to do the removing. So, while it is true United Airlines created the situation which ultimately resulted in Dr. Dao’s injuries, there is a significant legal issue over whether or not they would be responsible for those injuries.


Was it foreseeable that United Airlines would have to call law enforcement to remove a passenger from an overbooked flight? Possibly. Was it foreseeable those officers would use excessive force? Less likely. These are the types of issues which are ripe for summary judgment motions, which can end a lawsuit before it ever reaches the courthouse steps. Knowing this, United Airlines was probably less inclined to award BIG money.

Injuries And Lost Wages

The next consideration: what were Dr. Dao’s damages? We know he had a concussion, a broken nose, and was in need of some dental work. It is possible he also suffered some injuries to his back and neck. However, the medical bills that Dr. Dao incurred in just one short month couldn’t have been anything too large. Plus, it was likely too early for any physicians to give too strong an opinion as to whether he was permanently injured and what his future medical care would be.

That said, one factor that certainly raises the stakes is that fact that Dr. Dao is a specialist in internal medicine. This is to say that his earning capacity is tremendous. If the concussion he suffered in any way affected his ability to treat patients and perform his work, his wage losses could be huge.


Liability and damages aside, there is a special aspect to this case that most other personal injury cases don’t have: negative publicity. Just hours after the videos were published, they exploded online, putting an enormous target on United Airlines. It is probable that United Airlines was not excited about embracing the mantra “any press is good press,” and so they probably sought to put this claim to rest, fast.  In concurrence with the settlement, United Airlines announced new policies which would reduce the number of overbooked flights and which created a new manner for handling those rare instances where overbooking does occur. In short, they probably overpaid Dr. Dao to put this whole event in their rear-view.

Every case is different. What appears to be a grand-slam case can oftentimes prove to be a path riddled with legal landmines and traps. Other times, what seems to be a simple beverage spill can spiral out into an enormous (punitive) damages award. Although we can’t know for sure what Dr. Dao agreed to settle for, it was likely nothing in the million dollar ball park.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.


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