Judge Insists His Own Lost Luggage Is A 'Key' Issue In Massive Lawsuit He's Overseeing Against British Airways
from the so-that-happened dept
Apparently, British Airways has been involved for years in a big case in Europe concerning alleged price fixing for air cargo. In a somewhat bizarre turn of events, the judge in the UK who has been dealing with the case for years, Justice Peter Smith, took a short vacation with his wife, in which he flew British Airways. On the return trip, apparently there were some issues with the flight and his luggage. I’ll let the judge explain the story himself:
On 30 April, I booked a return ticket to Florence with the first defendant. On 6 July, I flew to Florence, together with my wife, due to return on 10 July. On 10 July, as I have set out in my emails, the flight was delayed for two hours without any explanation. Six people were then summoned to the departure desk and were told that they were bumped off the flight. It turns out that they were the lucky ones, because they got their luggage back then, unlike anybody else in the flight.
The rest of us were then rushed to the aeroplane. Somewhat intriguingly, as I have said in my email, we were sitting right next to the plane while it was refuelling for 20 minutes. It might be a standard practice in Florence, I don’t know. It might be a standard practice for the accompanying fire tender to arrive after the refuelling is completed. Anyway, we were then put on the plane and the pilot said that they had been moved to another runway and the load had had to be adjusted because of the crosswinds, and that was it.
We arrived at Gatwick, hung around in the baggage claim, as people do at Gatwick, for 45 minutes and then we were told to go to Global Recoveries, where we were told for the first time that the entire flight’s luggage had been left behind. No explanation, no representative, nothing. Nothing from BA. Nothing from Vueling who provided the flight.
I saw the distress that lots of people suffered as a result of that; and I contacted BA customer relations, who simply said: it was a Vueling flight, you will have to take it up with Vueling. That is all they said.
Vueling were no better. In fact, they were worse, for the reasons I have said in argument. Vueling refused to acknowledge my communicating with them until a computerised individual number went onto their system. As I said earlier, it never did. The luggage arrived spontaneously and without warning on Wednesday last week.
Losing your luggage sucks, no doubt about that. Airplane service tends to also suck. Especially when they lose your luggage. But what do you do if you’re a judge in a massive case concerning British Airways and its cargo and the airline loses your luggage. You suddenly bring your own issue into the courtroom. Apparently after exhausting his communications with customer service, the judge reached out to the lawyers in the case and the CEO of British Airways to ask what happened to his own luggage. Not surprisingly, BA and its lawyers felt this was somewhat inappropriate. They felt the same about this exchange that happened in court soon after:
Mr Justice Peter Smith: Right, Mr Turner, here is a question for you. What happened to [the] luggage?
Jon Turner: My Lord, the position remains that set out in the letter from Slaughter and May of 15 July, that we are not dealing with that as parties in these proceedings.
PS: I am asking you: what has happened to the luggage?
JT: My Lord, so far as the parties to these proceedings ? are concerned, we have said, and we maintain, that we are not getting involved because we trust that that will be dealt with expeditiously, in the ordinary course of events.
PS: In that case, do you want me to order your chief executive to appear before me today?
JT: I do not wish your Lordship to do that; and I would say, if your Lordship will permit me to develop my submissions, that that would be an inappropriate mixture of a personal dispute …
PS: What is inappropriate is the continued failure of your clients to explain a simple question, namely, what happened to the luggage? It has been two weeks since that happened now….
JT: Our position, my Lord, is that where your Lordship initiates a personal dispute with British Airways?
PS: I didn?t initiate a personal dispute. BA?s associated company retained my luggage. It is not my fault that that happened. I am the victim. I read the whole of your correspondence. The more I read it, I got the impression that BA was trying to portray itself of the victim of this case and being oppressed by wicked Mr Justice Peter Smith. It is just ridiculous…
PS: As far as I am concerned, the key fact in this case is: what happened to the luggage; and your clients know what happened to the luggage and they are not telling me. And your solicitors and you are deliberately not asking…
Not surprisingly, British Airways suggested that perhaps Justice Smith should recuse himself from the case. Now, at one level, you could argue that it’s a little weird that a judge who has been overseeing the case for years might get pushed off the case because of actions of British Airways in losing his luggage — but the judge appears to have gotten somewhat obsessed about using his position in this case to find out what happened to his luggage, which had long since been returned. At one point, the judge tries to argue that the issue is really the same one as in the case, because perhaps his luggage was kept off the flight in order to carry more revenue generating cargo, but that seems like a stretch:
Of course, I do not operate airlines. There might be a logical explanation. I am surprised, if there is a logical explanation, that it hasn’t been forthcoming in the last 12 days. I do not believe there is a logical explanation. I believe that the passengers’ luggage was deliberately bumped off for a more profitable cargo.
The judge argued that he had little other choice but to identify himself as the judge in this case in reaching out to BA for an explanation, because if he had not made that clear, and BA later found out, then it would have demanded he recuse himself. Either way, he feels he had to make this a major issue — apparently the “key” issue in this case:
Conversely, I do not, with respect to Mr Turner QC’s valiant submissions, accept for one minute that I should not have told his team that I had a dispute. I posed the question to his solicitors, which of course they didn’t answer in the correspondence, how they would have reacted if I had carried on and said nothing, and heard the CMC next week, while I was still in dispute with BA over the questions to be answered. I think you only have to say it. The first things they would have done is would have applied, (a) for me to recuse myself and, (b) undoubtedly, to set aside all the orders that I had made, because it was at a time when I was apparently biased against BA.
It is impossible to keep the two separate. That is not to say that I should ever use the litigation to try and get better treatment or better return of my luggage. I have made it clear all along to the lawyers that I was not concerned about that. I was concerned about why because of the potential similarity between claims in this litigation and the claims in respect of the luggage and the fact that the entirety of the passengers’ luggage was left behind.
In the end, though, he did recuse himself, though somewhat angrily:
So the question then is: what should I do? Well, Slaughter and May wrote to me on Monday, requiring me to confirm immediately that I would recuse myself, failing which they would make an urgent application to the Court of Appeal. This litigation is complex enough, without those distractions. It is of no interest to the other parties, who have all had to come here today, to have a proper application made and a decision made. And that has a cost consequence which will probably be irrecoverable, and it is a matter of great regret to my mind that the parties have been inconvenienced for no apparently good or acceptable reason. It would not be appropriate for a recusal application to be acceded to as a result of an exchange of private correspondence.
This would lead to a waste of a lot of judicial resource time in addition to the parties it will also slow progress of the case which I have been attempting to progress. I am afraid BA are not in my view really interested in progressing the matter expeditiously for obvious reasons.
I however cannot allow my presence in the case and its difficulties to distract the parties from this case. And therefore, regretfully, I feel that I have no choice, whatever my feelings about it, but to recuse myself from the case, and that is what my decision is; not for the reasons put forward by BA, but for the reasons that I have said.
He later notes that this “regrettable but necessary decision” was “caused in my view entirely by BA’s attitude.” That seems like a bit of a stretch. Recognizing how frustrating lost luggage can be, I can certainly understand the temptation to use your position in a case concerning BA cargo to see if you can find out why luggage got lost, but it’s hard to see how the judge’s own experience should have been brought into the case at all.