The incident with the United Airlines customer being dragged off an overbooked plane is firmly emblazoned in our minds by now. The viral video is unimpeachable evidence of the infliction of personal injury on a victim as the result of negligent and willful conduct by multiple actors, both corporate and governmental. Rarely are we privy to a set of facts that makes such a clear case for the plaintiff. Indeed, the case was so open and shut that it went from incident to settlement in a record 18 days. I have heard people comment that it was “easy money” for the plaintiff’s attorney. What we don’t hear is that the role of the victim’s attorney, in advocating on his behalf, making his case in the media, and stemming the tide of the impunity with which his character is attacked, is vital. We also don’t hear about all the times that an attorney fought long and hard and lost a case he truly believed in.
The plaintiff’s attorney’s role in our legal system is vital to the process that resulted in almost immediate systemic changes in the airline industry relative to this incident. United, and likely its competitors, have changed their rules regarding overbooking, the process of boarding passengers in an overbooking situation, and providing fair compensation to passengers who agree to forfeit their seat for another passenger or airline personnel. Dr. Dao’s harrowing tale was not for naught. While it represents the worst our institutions have to offer, the aftermath represents the best: a working constitutional democracy, in all its glory.
A citizen was victimized by corporate and governmental actors. Thanks to modern technology, the incident was recorded and exhaustively covered in the press. The citizen retained an attorney to enforce the law and obtain a remedy on his behalf. The pressure brought to bear by his counsel, the media and the public, resulted in swift compensation to the victim, an immediate change in policy at the corporate and governmental level, a Congressional investigation and the undertaking of measures to improve corporate policies and governmental intervention. As a society we’re often so consumed with criticism that we fail to see the success when our systems work as designed. In this case we should applaud all of those, attorneys and citizens alike, who stood beside the victim and effected abrupt change because in the end, we all benefit.