Fly, Drink, Fight, Blame Airline

Florida couple holds United responsible for fight

When you've had one too many, it's the bartender's responsibility to cut you off. But does that same rule apply 40,000 feet in the air over international territory?

A Florida couple is suing Chicago-based United Airlines for "negligently" serving them too much alcohol during a flight from Osaka, Japan, to San Francisco, California. According to the suit, the drinks are to blame for the domestic violence that occurred between the husband and wife after the plane landed.

United flight attendants allegedly served Yoichi Shimamoto Burgundy wine every 20 minutes during the couple's trip in December 2006. The lawsuit, filed in Tampa, states that Shimamoto was so drunk, "he could not manage himself."

As husband Yoichi and wife Ayisha passed through U.S. Customs in San Francisco, Shimamoto struck his wife six times, injuring her face and upper lip. He was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and battery.

But is an airplane's crew subject to the same legal responsibilities as bartenders on the ground? That's the key question, say legal experts.

"United's first defense will be there's no tort action like this in international airspace," James Speta, professor at Northwestern University Law School, told the Chicago Tribune.

Shimamoto was charged and sentenced to 18 months' probation. The couple is suing for Yoichi's $100,000 bail, attorneys' fees, pain and suffering, and loss of income.

United spokesperson Jean Medina responded, "We believe that a lawsuit that suggests that we are somehow responsible for the consequences of a passenger's physical assault on his own wife is without any merit whatsoever."

What makes the case especially tricky is the fact that the alcohol was served while the plane crossed the Pacific Ocean, where U.S. law doesn't apply.

Carl Hayes, a lawyer representing the Shimamotos, declined to comment.

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