Passengers sue Alaska Airlines for ’emotional distress’

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Three passengers filed a lawsuit to hold Alaska Airlines accountable for a “breach of trust” that caused “emotional distress” when an off-duty pilot attempted to hijack and crash a plane last week. 

In the complaint filed in the Superior Court of Washington for King County on Thursday, the plaintiffs allege that Alaska should not have allowed Joseph David Emerson, 44, in the cockpit given he had been suffering from a mental illness for weeks.  

On a Horizon Air flight to San Francisco Airport from Paine Field Airport in Everett, Washington, on Oct. 22, Emerson was in the jump seat when he admitted to the pilots he was “not OK” and tried to grab the red fire handles.

Emerson “wrestled with” the pilots before being zip-tied and taken to the back of the plane. 

He also admitted to police he “tried to kill everybody.”

“Passengers did not know what was wrong,” the complaint read. “Thoughts of a complete plane malfunction or terrorist activity naturally entered their minds.”

The complaint also called the airline’s statement to be “disappointingly self serving.”

Alaska said it had received the complaint and is reviewing it. 

“The airlines need a wake-up call. We understand that most pilots are heroes every day for safely operating our airliners. But they are not immune from sleeplessness, drinking, drugs, or a mental health crisis,” Daniel Laurence, aviation lawyer at The Stritmatter Firm, the firm handling the case, said in a statement. 

More: FAA encourages pilots to seek mental health treatment

“Airlines are charged with the lives of passengers and, by law, have the highest duty of care. Airlines can and should take simple and reasonable steps before each flight to challenge the presumption that every pilot who shows up at the gate is rested, sober, and in the right state of mind to fly. Emerson’s statements while in the air and shortly after his arrest show that had the airlines here done so, he would never have been allowed aboard. Our clients suffered needlessly as a result. Only luck prevented it from becoming a mass disaster.”

The complaint also points out how the system for pilots and their mental health checks are lacking, and ends up driving them away from the support they need so they can continue flying. 

The plaintiffs are asking for damages that would include ticket fees, “charges for evaluation and/or treatment of health conditions and associated travel, damages for psychological injury including but not limited to emotional distress, physical pain and suffering, lost enjoyment of life, lost travel and economic opportunities, and inconvenience Defendants caused Plaintiffs.”

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at

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