CONCORD, New Hampshire_A jury on Friday said Southwest Airlines did not racially discriminate against an overweight passenger when she was asked to buy a second seat on her flight.
The jury deliberated for a little over an hour before finding against Nadine Thompson, who sued Southwest in federal court. She claimed that she was singled out because she is black and that the airline's "customer of size" policy was unfairly applied to her after she boarded a flight at Manchester Airport in June 2003.
Thompson, 48, of Exeter, New Hampshire, had refused to buy the second seat and eventually left the plane after two conversations with an employee. She then had a confrontation with another employee outside the plane, in the presence of two sheriff's deputies called there by Southwest.
"Even if you're the only black person on a flight ... you still can't prove race," Thompson, the CEO of a successful cosmetics company, said after the verdict. "If they don't fix these problems with their policy, other people are going to come at them."
Her lawyer, Neil Osborne, said he believed that her lawsuit is the furthest a discrimination case against Southwest has gotten.
Southwest said the only mistake it made was telling Thompson that she needed to pay the extra fare for her outbound flight; since she already had boarded the plane, she wasn't required to do so. The employees who addressed Thompson about the "customer of size" policy testified that it was their first time applying it, and that they weren't aware of the fare provision, which was buried in the guidelines.
"Is everyone who makes a mistake a racist?" asked Southwest Garry Lane in his closing arguments. "They didn't know they were doing it wrong."
Southwest's policy states that a "customer of size" is someone who can't sit in a seat without having the armrest raised and is sitting on part of the adjacent seat. Thompson, who said she doesn't consider herself a customer of size, didn't challenge the policy; rather, she claimed, it allows any random employee to operate "in a discriminatory way about that policy."