LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — The passenger dragged from a United flight lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose and a concussion, his lawyer said Thursday, accusing the airline industry of having “bullied” its customers for far too long.
“Are we going to continue to be treated like cattle?” attorney Thomas Demetrio asked.
The passenger, David Dao, has been released from a hospital but will need reconstructive surgery, Demetrio said at a news conference, appearing alongside one of Dao’s children. Dao was not there.
The 69-year-old physician from Elizabethtown, Ky., was removed by police from the United Express flight Sunday at Chicago’s O’Hare airport after refusing to give up his seat on the full plane to make room for four airline employees.
Cellphone video of him being pulled down the aisle on his back and footage of his bloody face have created a public-relations nightmare for United.
One of Dao’s five children, Crystal Pepper, said the family was “horrified, shocked and sickened” by what happened. She said it was made worse by the fact that it was caught on video.
For Dao, who came to the U.S. after fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1975 when Saigon fell, being dragged off the plane “was more horrifying and harrowing than what he experienced in leaving Vietnam,” Demetrio said.
Demetrio, who indicated Dao is going to sue, said the industry has long “bullied” passengers by overbooking flights and then bumping people, and “it took something like this to get a conversation going.”
“I hope he becomes a poster child for all of us. Someone’s got to,” the lawyer said.
Attorney Patrick Bailey in Santa Monica specializes in cases involving the airline industry. He believed United broke the law because Dao was already seated, and United had no standing to remove him.
“United Airlines knows it, and United Airlines will pay dearly for it,” Bailey said.
The lawyer said this incident will likely put the heat on United and possibly other carriers to make changes.
“Will it change the way they operate? Yes. Will it change the way they operate in a favorable manner? I believe the answer is yes,” Bailey added.
Early on, United CEO Oscar Munoz added to the furor when he apologized for the incident but accused Dao of being belligerent. Later, Munoz offered a more emphatic mea culpa, saying, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
He promised to review the airline’s policies to make sure something like that never happens again, and said United will no longer use police to remove bumped passengers. The airline also said all passengers on the flight would get a refund.
In a statement issued immediately after Thursday’s news conference, United insisted that Munoz and the airline called Dao numerous times to apologize. Munoz himself said on Wednesday that he had left a message for Dao.
But Demetrio said neither Dao nor his family had heard from United.
Demetrio said his client accepts the apology. But the attorney questioned its sincerity, suggesting United acted because it was taking a PR “beating.”
The attorney was unable to say precisely how Dao was injured. Dao didn’t remember exactly what occurred because of the concussion he suffered, Demetrio said.
Pepper said her father and mother had been traveling from California to Louisville, Ky., and had caught a connecting flight at O’Hare. After what happened, Dao “has no interest in ever seeing an airplane” and will probably be driven to Kentucky, Demetrio said.
United had selected Dao and three other passengers at random for removal from the plane after unsuccessfully offering $800 in travel vouchers and a hotel stay to customers willing to give up their seats.
The three officers who removed Dao have been suspended from their jobs at the Chicago Aviation Department.
At a City Council committee hearing Thursday, aldermen ripped officials from United and the department about the episode.
“There are no excuses,” Alderman Michael Zalewski said.
John Slater, a United vice president, said that bumping passengers to accommodate airline employees happens infrequently, and that federal guidelines requiring rest for crew members made it necessary to get the employees on the Sunday flight to Louisville.
The Aviation Department’s roughly 300 officers guard the city’s two main airports but are not part of the regular Chicago police force, receive less training and cannot carry guns inside the terminals.
“To be quite frank, Chicago employees should not be doing the dirty work for the friendly skies airline,” said Alderman Ed Burke, who played video of Dao being removed.
Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans told the committee that the officers had the authority to board the flight but that what happened on the plane is being investigated.
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