WASHINGTON, May 21 (JTA) — The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving El Al Israel Airlines that could affect the way the airline conducts security measures. The court will decide whether an international treaty bars a New York woman from suing for emotional trauma that she claims stemmed from a stringent El Al security search. The justices said they will review an appeal by the airline, which says it is not liable because an international treaty known as the Warsaw Convention covers all injuries sustained during international air travel. The immediate issue before the high court is the viability of the Warsaw Convention — and not El Al’s security practices, which are known as among the most effective in the world. The incident occurred in May 1993, when Tsui Yuan Tseng, a clinical nutritionist at Beth Israel Medical Center, went to John F. Kennedy International Airport to board a flight to Tel Aviv. After presenting her ticket and U.S. passport to a security guard, Tseng was taken to a security area and classified as a “high risk” passenger based on her answers to routine questions about her destination, according to her lawsuit. She was confined for more than an hour, questioned and subjected to a security search for explosives or detonating devices. A female security guard conducted a search of her entire body, including her breasts and groin area, according to her lawsuit. After the search, security personnel decided she presented no risk and allowed her to get on the flight. Tseng sued for $5 million, accusing El Al of false imprisonment, inflicting psychological and emotional injuries and damaging or losing some of her personal belongings while searching her baggage. She testified during that trial that she was “really sick and very upset” during the flight because of the search and that she was “emotionally traumatized and disturbed” throughout the rest of her month-long trip to Israel and thereafter. She did not allege any physical injuries A federal judge ruled that Tseng’s injuries were not covered by the Warsaw Convention — which imposes a $75,000 cap on any passenger’s damages — because she did not sustain any physical injury. But a U.S. appeals court overruled the lower court and reinstated the lawsuit in 1997, saying that Tseng was free to sue under New York personal-injury law. El Al, plus a trade association representing the U.S. airline industry and the Clinton administration urged the Supreme Court to take the case, El Al vs. Tseng. An El Al spokeswoman declined to address the specifics of the case. She said only that “El Al is well known for its strict security. Sometimes it inconveniences passengers, but we’re proud of our procedures, our record and our reputation.” Lawyers for El Al said the appeals court ruling is at odds with decisions by other federal appeals courts. Disregarding an international treaty and allowing Tseng to sue, they argued, “effectively subordinated the supreme law of the land to the common law of the several states.” For its part, the Clinton administration got involved in the case because it felt the Warsaw Convention’s jurisdiction needed to be re-evaluated. It asked the high court to rule on what it said was a “recurring and important” legal issue. Although it is coincidental that the case involved El Al rather than another airline, legal scholars said, the case could bring scrutiny to some of the security measures taken by El Al. If the airline becomes subject to liability, said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, it may cause El Al and other carriers to reconsider some of their practices.
SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING