Executive Jet settles abduction lawsuit

 - December 21, 2006, 10:33 AM

A $27 million child-abduction suit involving charter and aircraft management services operator Executive Jet Management (EJM) has been settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, according to attorneys for the plaintiff, Cornelia Streeter.

The parties are bound by the settlement not to disclose terms of the settlement; however, a source close to the case told AIN that the amount finally agreed to was “considerably less” than the original award, and that the confidentiality clause further “avoided setting an unfortunate legal precedent.”

The lawsuit had its origins in the 2001 charter of an EJM Gulfstream by Anwar Wissa Jr., former husband of Cornelia Streeter and father of their two children–Victoria and Henry, then age six and seven, respectively. Wissa, an Egyptian national, took the children with him to Egypt on the flight. Wissa carried an Egyptian passport. Both children had U.S. passports.

After the abduction, Streeter, who had been granted custody of the children, engaged in a legal battle to have them returned. It took her 22 months to regain custody, and during that time 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 asked for $3.5 million to recover expenses incurred in the effort to regain custody, as well as an unspecified amount in compensation for loss of the children’s company (filial consortium) for 22 months.

According to court documents, EJM said it had no knowledge an abduction was taking place and therefore owed no duty to Streeter. It 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 early February 2005, Judge Barbara Sheedy of the Waterbury (Massachusetts) Complex Litigation Docket denied an EJM motion for a summary judgment of dismissal. Because 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. While filial consortium is not a remedy Connecticut courts recognize as a matter of course, there is precedent in Massachusetts law. The case went before a jury on April 12 in the Connecticut Superior Court of the Judicial District of Waterbury.

On April 29, a jury ordered EJM to pay Streeter $10 million for negligence and custodial interference and an additional $17 million for the 22-month separation from her children. EJM and insurer U.S. Aviation Underwriters (then USAIG) immediately appealed and the claim dragged through the legal system for almost 18 months until the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement.

The lawsuit and its ramifications quickly caught the attention of other U.S. charter operators, some of which already had in place measures to avoid being implicated in a child-abduction event. According to a company source, fractional ownership and aircraft and charter operator Flexjet flags any trip carrying 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.

Industry Responsibility

One aviation attorney questioned the wisdom of such a requirement, commenting, “The smartest course of action by a carrier, even though it doesn’t sound prudent, is to do nothing [with regard to ensuring that a child abduction is not taking place]. There is no law requiring that they do so,” she explained, “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 therefore assumed a certain level of responsibility to prevent such acts.”

Further, if an operator has its own written policy regarding child-abduction prevention, it will likely face a lawsuit anyhow if its measures fail. And in such a case, the existence of such a document would weaken the company’s denial of responsibility. Worse yet, if the policy is part of the operations manual, the company’s insurance carrier could decline responsibility for coverage.

The EJM case drew sufficient national attention to prompt the National Air Transportation Association to publish “NATA’s Guide for International Transportation of Minors” in October. The document addresses several scenarios, including transporting minors with only one parent or legal guardian, minors alone, minors accompanied by neither parent nor legal guardian, minors with a different last name and minors with one deceased parent.

“These guidelines,” noted the association, “are recommended for all international travel with minors to guard against legal action resulting from the transportation of minors.”