An elderly retired doctor and his wife are suing an airline, some of its employees, a sheriff and his deputies, saying he was illegally arrested and subjected to excessive force after being removed from an airplane at New Orleans International Airport.
Dr. Johannes Markus Sieber and his wife Mina Margareta Sieber Schneiter, both 74 and citizens of Switzerland, were removed from a Delta Airlines flight at the airport in November 2016 following what they say was a minor incident over the placing of luggage in an overhead compartment.
According to the suit filed in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, as Sieber was attempting to put his wife's luggage in the compartment he accidentally dislodged a plastic bag containing about 20-30 small packets that were approximately 4 inches by 1.5 inches. Instead of helping Sieber with the packets as they fell to the floor, a flight attendant went to the back of the plane and pushed a "red button" that alerted other attendants, the suit claims.
The suit further alleges breach of contract by Delta and damages for mental suffering, and unlawful arrest and use of excessive force by two deputies called on to the plane following the baggage incident. Sheriff Joseph P. Lopinto is named in the suit, accused of failing to supervise or properly train deputies Jesse Steer and Erroll Harris.
Sieber was charged with resisting arrest and striking an attendant with his luggage, which be denied. He said he was held in handcuffs in a cage, then removed to jail, where he remained for 16 hours. The Jefferson Parish District Attorney declined to prosecute him on those charges.
Delta and four attendants argued the couple's complaint failed to state a claim and denied all specific allegations made against the employees, including the plaintiff's characterization of how the dispute developed. The sheriff and deputies also denied all of the allegations.
Attorney Danny Martini (R-Metairie), who represents Lopinto and his deputies and serves in the State Senate, said the complaint mischaracterized what happened.
"We have deputies that work at the airport ... and (their) role is if they get a request to remove, they will remove," Martini told the Louisiana Record.
Martini said Sieber "shoved" one of the deputies as he attempted to hold onto his luggage case, adding Sieber was arrested for resisting arrest and failing to disembark from the plane when told to do so.
Martini also denied his clients used excessive force, including "shoving" the elderly passenger up against a wall. He believes the District Attorney may have charged Sieber if the reason for the arrest had been battery of a police officer rather than resisting arrest.
"He was upset being put off a plane; there were no physical injuries," Martini said. "The case has been totally blown out of proportion."
Bonnie Jackson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said one overarching argument is that law enforcement was acting as agents of an airline and based their actions on the word of one of the attendants. There was no indication the pilot called for assistance, Jackson said.
One of the counterclaims is that the attendant was struck by the luggage, but the plaintiffs' attorney said there is no indication that happened.
Among the expert opinions the plaintiffs intend to introduce includes two witnesses with two decades of experience on how to deal with passengers. Both came to the same conclusion, according to Jackson: that training and experience to de-escalate a situation were lacking.
"Instead, they got him off the plane, (but) he was never told why ... he was jailed overnight. (They) did not allow him to call the Swiss Embassy, had him in a cage, in handcuffs," Jackson said. "This is a retired doctor ... (who) spent his life as a medical doctor and just wanted an apology.
Sieber is "never going to step foot in Louisiana and does not want to come back to the U.S.," Jackson said.
The couple were traveling as tourists throughout the U.S. As they waited for take off, they were approached by the attendants, who asked them the location of their luggage, the complaint said. Without further explanation, they were told to leave the plane, the complaint said.
At that point, the two deputies appeared and told them to get off the plane, the complaint said, and Sieber attempted to ask the captain for an explanation.
When off the plane, Steer pressed Sieber’s head against a wall as his colleague handcuffed him, the complaint said.
He was taken to what he describes as a cage in the airport, the complaint said. At one point, after identifying himself as a doctor, Sieber claims Deputy Harris said, “Why didn’t you say right away that you are a doctor? You’re going to be in a bad situation in the jail. Then it would have been a completely different situation,” the complaint said.
He spent approximately 16 hours in confinement before being released. When he attempted to board a flight to New York, he was told he was "banned from ever using Delta again" and was not given a refund, the complaint said.