Houston — Prosecutors in Houston have started an investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted following the death of a French bulldog puppy that was forced into an overhead bin on a flight.
United Airlines said a flight attendant who ordered the passenger to put her pet carrier in the overhead bin aboard a Houston-to-New York flight Monday didn't know there was a dog inside. The family that owned the dog and other passengers contradicted the Chicago-based airline's account, saying the dog's barks were audible from inside the bin.
Here's a look at some questions and answers on any possible charges:
WHO HAS JURISDICTION IN THE LEGAL CASE?
It's immediately unclear. That's one of the things being examined, said Harris County Assistant District Attorney Jessica Milligan, who's heading the investigation. She is the office's Animal Cruelty Section Chief.
"We don't know the official answer yet," she said. The flight originated in Houston and landed in New York, complicating the case because other law enforcement offices may be involved. She also said it's unclear where the plane was when the dog died, which could be a factor in the jurisdiction.
Thatcher Stone is an attorney in Charlottesville, Virginia, who has been involved in litigation with airlines and teaches aviation law at the University of Virginia. Stone believes jurisdiction belongs to "the state where they landed," meaning New York, and any charges depend on "how the criminality for being mean to animals is worded in that state."
That's not the end of it, said Brian F. Havel, director of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal.
The US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Transportation, the DA's offices of both Harris County, Texas, and Queens County, New York, and an assortment of other agencies have potential claims of jurisdiction, both civil and criminal. "What you have here are a lot of competing interests," Havel said.
IS THIS COMMON?
It is rare that an animal dies on a plane.
"I don't personally have any knowledge of this happening," Milligan said.
Last year, 18 animals, mostly dogs, died while being transported on United — three-fourths of all animal deaths on US carriers, according to the Department of Transportation, but those figures represent animals that die in cargo holds. United, which promotes its pet-shipping program called PetSafe, carries more animals than any other airline but its animal-death rate is also the highest in the industry.
Alaska Airlines, which carries only 17 percent fewer animals, had just two deaths last year.
WHAT CHARGES ARE POSSIBLE?
Milligan said the charge in Texas potentially could be cruel confinement of an animal, a Class A misdemeanor.
"We need details, we need the investigation to be complete," she said.
A conviction carries up to a year in a county jail and up to a $4 000 fine. She said state law doesn't allow an entity, like United Airlines, to be charged in cases like this. That means if someone is charged, it would be only the flight attendant.
"When you get on an airplane, all of your sensibilities about what you think you can do and what you think your rights are, to use a bad pun, fly out the window," Stone said. "You are required to do by law whatever a member of the cabin or flight crew tells you. And you don't have a choice to argue. You can be charged with a violation of law if you don't do so."
But he said if you do everything you've been told to do "and they screw up ... they're probably on the hook for it."
Havel suggests, however, that a criminal prosecution has little chance of succeeding and likely would be a response to public opinion.
"I don't think a criminal prosecution would succeed because the demands of proof would be too high," he said. Criminal liability would be likely, he said, "only if there was deliberate cruelty. I just don't see a reason for a criminal prosecution happening."
ARE THE FEDS INVOLVED?
"A lot of issues are still up in the air," Milligan said. There may be some Federal Aviation Administration regulations, and Milligan said she's not clear yet whether any of the legal language on airline tickets applies to animals accompanying passengers.
"When we get the facts, we'll be able to narrow it down," she said.
Two US senators aren't waiting. Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Republican John Kennedy of Louisiana introduced Thursday the Welfare of Our Furry Friends Act to explicitly prohibit airlines from putting animals in danger by placing them in overhead baggage compartments. This bill directs the FAA to create regulations to prohibit the storing of a live animal in any overhead compartment of any flight in air transportation and establish civil fines for violations.
The acronym for the measure is the WOOFF Act.
WHAT'S UNITED DOING?
United Airlines said it will issue bright coloured bag tags to people traveling with pets to prevent animal carriers from being placed in overhead bins.
Spokesperson Charles Hobart said the airline is investigating "a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin."
The airline refunded the tickets purchased for the dog owner and her two children and the fee that they paid to bring a pet on board — typically $200. He said the attendant told the dog owner that the pet carrier bag was partly obstructing the aisle and had to go in the overhead. It's not clear why the bag wasn't put under the seat.
HOW ABOUT A CIVIL LAWSUIT?
"I'm sure there will be one," Milligan said.
Stone said he'd advise the family that lost their dog to send a letter to United "and tell them if you deal with this right away and don't embarrass us we won't embarrass you. Let's get it solved in the next 20 days."
Then see what the airline says, according to Stone. He thinks it would be more expensive for United to pay for a necropsy on the dog than "just buy them a new French bulldog and pay them something for pain and suffering. If (United was) smart, that's what they should do."
And if the airline balked?
"Then I would sue," Stone said.