Cover Story: Stowaway death lawsuit

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Is it national security or financial gain?  The family of a teenaged stowaway says they'll sue the Charlotte airport.

But how legitimate is their complaint?

In November, Delvonte Tisdale was found dead in a neighborhood outside of Boston.  Investigators believe he fell from the sky after hiding inside a plane's wheel-well.

Delvonte's family telling us this isn't about money. It's about your safety and so no family ever has to suffer like they do.

But some people are saying it's another example of greedy lawyers.

People have e-mailed us and said how can they be going after the airport and the airline when it's obvious Delvonte Tisdale shouldn't have been there in the first place?

Is this a legitimate case or another frivolous lawsuit?

Delvonte Tisdale's parents and the Florida attorney they hired this week appeared live on our 4 o'clock news Thursday afternoon.  They're suing they say to get answers.

"We're still struggling because we don't have information and we can't bring about closure because we don't know what happened," said Anthony Tisdale.

But do they have a case for a lawsuit?

If everything investigators in Massachusetts says is true, Tisdale got by security and was trespassing - breaking the law - when he apparently got inside the wheelwell of a US Airways plane.

How can the family sue when Tisdale was apparently irresponsible?

We asked Charlotte School of Law Professor Bobby Jenkins, who practiced for nearly two decades in the areas of medical negligence, products liability, wrongful death and serious personal injury.

"A criminal act does not necessarily relieve the potential defendant of liability," he said.

And couldn't one argue there was a breakdown in security that led to Tisdale's death.

"Strikes me as gut-level that just shouldn't happen. Somebody dropped the ball. Somewhere somebody did not do something right," said Jenkins.

But if it ends up going to trial winning a case like this will be harder here than most places.

North Carolina is one of only three states and the District of Columbia that still recognizes what's known as pure contributory negligence.

It's a doctrine that says if a party who's injured in any way contributed to his or her own injuries and the jury finds that true then the plaintiff's not allowed to recover any damages.

What could happen at this point is up in the air.

"I don't know that the law is that easy. I don't know that the conclusion is that easy," said Jenkins.

In a case spanning hundreds of miles and two states and involving many different agencies  not all working with each other two months after Tisdale's death no one's come forward to explain how it happened.

Tisdale's family attorney says that's the reason they're suing.

"Some are trying to spin this as oh family's seeking money.. they're hiring a lawyer.. greedy lawyers. No. Sometimes you file lawsuits to get answers. So now we can propound discovery and that's what we're preparing a lawsuit to do," said attorney Christopher Chestnut.

They say they're about getting answers and that it's a matter of public safety.

If this case is settled out of court experts say we may never know the outcome, what actually happened much less financial terms.  We'll have to see if it's really about public safety or something else.  Only time will tell what the real motive is.

No lawsuit has been filed.  It appears this is the first airplane stowaway case in a flight originating in the United States in 39 years.  The last time was April 1972.

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