Next month, a Connecticut jury will hear a $3.5 million claim against Executive Jet Management (EJM) in a case that is already sending a chill through the business aviation community.
The case has its beginnings with a child abduction that involved the Cincinnati-based charter operator when Anwar Wissa Jr. chartered an EJM Gulfstream for a flight from Hartford, Conn., to Egypt. The divorced father had with him his two children–Victoria and Henry, then age 6 and 7–whom the courts had placed in the custody of the mother, Cornelia Streeter, of Essex County, Mass.
It took Streeter 22 months to regain custody of the children, and during that time she filed a $3.5 million claim against EJM, saying that the charter operator had failed to question the absence of the mother or to ask for a consent form giving her permission for the minor children to travel abroad in the custody of the father.
The claim asked for $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.
Attorneys for EJM, according to The Connecticut Law Tribune, said EJM had no knowledge that an abduction was taking place and therefore owed no duty to Streeter. But early last month, Judge Barbara Sheedy of the Waterbury Complex Litigation Docket denied an EJM motion for a summary judgment of dismissal.
Because Streeter and her ex-husband and the children were residents of Massachusetts at the time of the abduction, Sheedy decided to allow the case to proceed with regard to claims for loss of the children’s company. While Connecticut courts as a matter of course do not recognize filial consortium, there is precedence in Massachusetts law.
Now the case is scheduled to go before a jury on April 13 in the Connecticut Superior Court of the Judicial District of Waterbury.
A Matter of Foreseeable Harm
Considering that there is no law enforcement mechanism in place to prevent such abductions, some observers are surprised that the case has reached the point of jury trial.
Attorney Pamela Hicks, an associate with Beirne, Maynard & Parsons of Houston, has researched the subject of child abduction thoroughly and told AIN, “I was surprised at the lack of restrictions on children traveling abroad and accompanied by one of two parents, and particularly on children traveling alone.”
Hicks said in this current case, a key element in a jury decision will be whether that jury believes that EJM could have foreseen the harm that would result from its allowing the charter.
Streeter’s attorney, Barry Pollack of Donnelly, Conroy and Gelhaar of Boston, told AIN, “It’s our hope that an award here will encourage members of the international travel industry to take more adequate steps to eliminate, or at the very least, reduce the risk of child abductions.”
Child abduction is a problem worldwide. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some 2,100 missing-children reports are filed each day in the U.S., and other statistics suggest that some 200,000 children annually are victims of family abduction worldwide. Based on those numbers, it seems almost inevitable that EJM’s involvement in a child abduction will not be the last such case. So the question becomes what steps would be considered adequate, as Pollack put it, to eliminate, or at the very least, reduce the risk of child abductions?”
This, said Hicks, places aircraft operators squarely in a position of enforcing the law, “which they are not equipped to do.
“Neither an airline nor a private operator is in a position to validate a consent form from the absent parent,” said Hicks. “In fact, I cannot think of a single document they could ask for from the accompanying parent that would be verifiable.”
The Hague Is No Help
Nor are there any federal or international guidelines that might be helpful. The Hague Convention provides remedies in cases of child abduction with regard to the signatories of the agreement (some 60 countries), but only for return of the children after the abduction. It does not offer guidance about prevention of the abduction in the first place or any mechanism for the screening of children entering or leaving a country, other than the usual visa and passport documentation. In truth, immigration authorities do not always ask for documentation that would detect that a child abduction is taking place.
Further, countries set adulthood at different ages. And as a matter of international law, the Hague Convention ceases to apply to children once they have reached age 16.
But does this leave aircraft operators helpless to prevent child abductions, or at the very least to reduce their liability in such cases? While there is no single step that could be taken, answers to certain questions should present a red flag to an operator:
• Is the child a minor? In the U.S. a minor child is under the age of 18.
• Is the child accompanied by a single parent, family member other than either or both parents or a family friend?
• Is the child being transported to another country?
• Is the country of final destination a signatory of the Hague Convention?
• Is the accompanying parent or adult in a particular hurry and have they made it clear that money is no object?
If answers to the above questions give cause for concern, the operator can ask the accompanying parent or adult for a consent form from the missing parent or for documentation confirming that the accompanying parent (or guardian) is authorized to transport the child out of the country.
Whatever the final disposition in the Streeter versus EJM case–settlement or jury verdict–aircraft operators must now include child abduction as a consideration when agreeing to the transport of a minor child.