Jury hits EJM for $27M in abduction trial

 - October 11, 2006, 4:40 AM

In a child-abduction case that has sent a chill through the business aviation industry, a Connecticut jury has ordered Executive Jet Management (EJM) to pay $27 million to a mother whose ex-husband hired an EJM aircraft for the purpose of abducting the couple’s two children.

The lawsuit had its origins in the charter of an EJM Gulfstream by Anwar Wissa Jr., former husband of Cornelia Streeter and father of her two children–Henry and Victoria, then ages 7 and 6, respectively. Wissa, an Egyptian national traveling on an Egyptian passport, took the children to Egypt on the flight. The children had U.S. passports.

Streeter, who had been granted legal custody of the children, thereafter engaged in a legal battle to secure their return. During the 22 months it took her to regain custody she filed a $3.5-million lawsuit against EJM, claiming that the charter operator had failed to question the absence of the mother or to ask for a consent form granting her permission for the minor children to travel abroad in the custody of their father.

The claim sought $3.5 million to recover expenses incurred in the effort to regain custody and an unspecified amount as compensation for loss of the children’s company (filial consortium) for 22 months.

According to court documents, EJM said it had no knowledge that an abduction was taking place and therefore owed no duty to Streeter. The documents further noted the result of an investigation showing that of 30 airlines queried, nearly 70 percent did not require consent forms and that such practice was not, as Streeter’s attorneys claimed, an industry standard.

In court documents, Streeter’s attorneys noted a number of “irregularities in arrangements for the flight” that should have alerted EJM that the children were being transported out of the country without the mother’s consent: by failing to require execution of a dual consent form, “EJM did not protect the children against abduction [and even though] EJM knew the children were six and seven years old, it failed to follow even its own internal procedures by not asking whether both parents would be traveling with the children.”

They further argued that several “unusual circumstances surrounding the flight” should have “alerted EJM to a possible unlawful act.” Among those were the short notice [30 hours] and the quick [three-day] turn-around. And finally, Streeter’s attorneys contended that EJM knew or should have known of the Department of State’s warning of child abductions to Egypt and that Egypt was not a signatory to any treaties requiring the return of abducted children.

In early February, Judge Barbara Sheedy of the Waterbury Complex Litigation Docket denied an EJM motion for a summary judgment of dismissal.

While Streeter and her ex-husband and children were residents of Massachusetts at the time of the abduction, Sheedy allowed the case to proceed in Connecticut court with regard to the claim for loss of the children’s company. She noted that although filial consortium is not a remedy Connecticut courts recognize as a matter of course, there is precedent in Massachusetts law. The case therefore went before a jury on April 13 in the Connecticut Superior Court of the Judicial District of Waterbury.

Pamela Hicks, an associate with Beirne, Maynard and Parsons of Houston, has researched the subject of child abduction and before the jury trial she predicted that a key element would be whether the jury believed EJM could have foreseen the harm that would result from its actions in allowing the charter.

Hicks was apparently correct in her assessment, and on April 29 the jury ordered EJM to pay Streeter $10 million for negligence and custodial interference and an additional $17 million for the 22-month separation from the children.

EJM’s response to the jury award: “Executive Jet Management complies fully with all laws and regulations and operates under the identical applicable protocol as the major carriers,” said v-p of marketing Ginnell Schiller. “We have great respect for our judicial system and know that this matter will be resolved satisfactorily on appeal.”

EJM might also appeal the verdict to invalidate the award.

Streeter’s attorney, Garry Pollack of Donnelly, Conroy and Gelhaar of Boston, said the plaintiff was “thrilled with the results and hopes that it serves to prevent future child abductions.”

Preventing Abductions

A source close to the case expressed doubts that the case would do much to prevent future child abductions. He noted that most international airlines now sell tickets online and that the only documents requested at check-in are valid passports and visas or proper identification that will satisfy the security requirements of the Transportation Security Administration.

He also noted that in refusing legitimate carriage based on its belief that a child abduction is taking place when it is not, the charter operator is laying itself open to a lawsuit based on that refusal.

Other business aviation operators have taken notice of the case and the jury decision in particular. According to a source at Flexjet, that fractional ownership and charter operation has flagged and continues to flag any trip scheduled to carry a single parent and minor children and requires a notarized letter from the absent parent granting permission for the children to travel in the company of the other parent.

International child abduction, according to the most recent statistics, is a growing problem, suggesting to some observers of the EJM case that Executive Jet’s involvement in a child abduction will not be the last case of its type. The legal question therefore becomes, “‘What steps would be considered adequate to prevent future child abductions?’”

This, said Hicks, “places aircraft operators squarely in a position of enforcing the law, which they are not equipped to do.”

In fact, said Hicks in an interview with AIN before the jury issued its decision, “Neither a commercial airline nor a private operator is in a position to validate a consent form from the absent parent [and] I cannot think of a single document they could ask for from the accompanying parent that would be verifiable.”

There are some who believe that the best approach to the matter of child abduction is to follow strictly the requirements of the law, but, said Hicks, those requirements are virtually nonexistent.

Both NBAA and the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) had declined to comment on the case at press time.

An industry insider, however, voiced the opinion that “the smartest course of action by a carrier, even though it doesn’t sound prudent, is to do nothing [with regard to suspicion that a child abduction is taking place]. There is no law requiring that they do so, and in the absence of such a law, by voluntarily establishing a procedure to prevent it, a carrier has in essence recognized the necessity to screen its clients for the possibility of child abduction and assumed a certain level of responsibility to prevent such events.”