Detomaso v. Pan American World Airways, Inc.

Decision Date23 March 1987
Citation43 Cal.3d 517,235 Cal.Rptr. 292,733 P.2d 614
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 733 P.2d 614, 124 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 3084, 55 USLW 2551, 106 Lab.Cas. P 12,262, 1 IER Cases 1636 John DeTOMASO, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. PAN AMERICAN WORLD AIRWAYS, INC., Defendant and Appellant. L.A. 32150.

Wilma B. Liebman, Washington, D.C., Deborah S. Merkel, George A. Pappy and Pappy & Davis, Los Angeles, as amici curiae on behalf of plaintiff and appellant.

Belcher, Henzie & Biegenzahn, Belcher, Henzie, Biegenzahn & Walker, George M. Henzie and James Derr, Los Angeles, for defendant and appellant.

David A. Berg, James L. Casey, Shirley M. Hufstedler, Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley and John M. Meenan, Los Angeles, as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and appellant.

Marsha S. Berzon, San Francisco, and Laurence Gold, Washington, D.C., as amici curiae.

PANELLI, Justice.

In this action for breach of warranty of title, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, Pan American World Airways, Inc. (Pan Am) seeks review of the Court of Appeal's decision (1) setting aside an order conditionally granting Pan Am's motion for new trial on the issue of damages, (2) affirming and reinstating the judgment on the verdict, and (3) holding that employee John DeTomaso's tort claims were not preempted by the Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., hereafter sometimes referred to as RLA or Act).

We granted review in order to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeal as to when state tort claims are preempted by the RLA. 1 As explained hereafter, we conclude that on the facts presented in this case the intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation claims are preempted. 2


DeTomaso worked in Pan Am's Los Angeles cargo department. On September 15, 1978, he purchased a bin of abandoned cargo from Pan Am for $100. 3 He made the purchase through Don Roark, a supervisor in the cargo department. Four days later, he paid $200 for two more bins of what he and Roark believed to be abandoned cargo.

Before DeTomaso's purchases, William Lasso, a cargo department employee, had prepared an inventory of shipments that had been in the warehouse for an unusually long time. Lasso placed the inventoried shipments in bins on the upper level of a cargo rack near the salvage bins, with a sign stating, "All transfers. Do not touch." Transfers were items to be transferred to other carriers who would transport them to cities not served by Pan Am.

One of the inventory items found in DeTomaso's bins was a shipment of 13,000 Sylva Cell batteries. Shortly after his purchase, in an effort to sell these batteries, DeTomaso contacted a Texas Instruments representative in Lubbock, Texas. The representative informed him that similar batteries had been noted as a delinquent shipment. DeTomaso told the representative that he had purchased the batteries in salvage and that he would be willing to sell them to Texas Instruments if the company was interested in repurchasing them. DeTomaso testified that before the phone call he was unaware that the batteries were originally to be shipped to Texas Instruments. The batteries were, however, on record as having been transferred by Pan Am to Continental Airlines (Continental). Continental had received a claim of loss for the batteries from Texas Instruments.

DeTomaso did not hear from the Texas Instruments representative again. Instead, on October 16, 1978, he received a call from Continental. The caller asked DeTomaso where and how he had obtained Continental contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) at the Los Angeles International Airport. The F.B.I., in turn, contacted Pan Am's director of security, Jim Startzell. Startzell and F.B.I. Agent Tim O'Neill interviewed DeTomaso on October 17, 1978. During the interview, DeTomaso told Startzell and O'Neill that all the cargo he had purchased was stored in his garage. He offered to show it to them.

the batteries. DeTomaso replied that he had purchased them from salvage and would have the seller contact Continental. DeTomaso did not, however, testify he told anyone at Pan Am about this call.

Once inside the garage, Startzell conducted an inventory of the cartons that had identifiable air waybill numbers. 4 Some, including seven cartons containing the batteries, appeared to be part of recent shipments. O'Neill confiscated the batteries and delivered them to Continental.

DeTomaso's 10-year-old son, Sean, was present in the garage during the investigation. Startzell said something to DeTomaso that Sean interpreted as an accusation of theft. 5 Both Sean and DeTomaso's wife, Carla, testified that after the investigation the family relationship deteriorated.

In November 1978, DeTomaso began experiencing physical pain. He ultimately was hospitalized for the removal of his appendix and of a growth on his intestine. At trial a psychiatrist whom DeTomaso had consulted in 1980, some two years after the operation, opined that DeTomaso's physical pain and appendicitis were caused by Pan Am's conduct, as was his continued depression and physical discomfort.

All employees of the cargo department in Los Angeles are represented by the Teamster's Union, Local 2707. As required by the RLA (45 U.S.C. § 152, First), the union and airline were parties to a collective bargaining agreement (the agreement). The agreement provided that no employee could be disciplined or discharged without "investigation by a recognized official of the [airline]." In the event an employee was to be disciplined or discharged, specified procedures were to be followed. Further, an employee who believed "that he [had] been unjustly dealt with" or that any provision of the agreement "[had] not been properly applied or interpreted" could present a grievance.

Pan Am suspected that DeTomaso had obtained by questionable means, not only the battery shipment, but possibly other items which were found in his garage. As a result, as required by the agreement, Pan Am investigated further into the October salvage purchases in order to determine whether to discharge or otherwise discipline DeTomaso. Twice during the investigation Pan Am officials contacted the local union representative, Saroop Chandiramani, to inform him that the company was considering discharging DeTomaso for theft.

Although the terms of the agreement did not expressly require such calls when an investigation of an employee represented by the union was underway, an informal agreement did. According to Chandiramani, such calls--known as "courtesy calls"--were a customary part of the pretermination procedures established between the airline and union. If such calls were not made, the union "would have a legitimate disagreement" with Pan Am.

Sometime early in January 1979, a meeting was held at which DeTomaso, Chandiramani, Startzell and other Pan Am officials were present. The meeting, like the calls, was an informal but customary part of established pretermination procedures.

In the course of the meeting, Startzell stated that DeTomaso was being discharged because of his involvement in the theft of the batteries. Chandiramani[43 Cal.3d 523] noted the harsh implications of that statement. Startzell explained that he did not necessarily mean that DeTomaso was a thief, but that the circumstances pointed to a theft somewhere in the chain of events that led to the presence of the batteries in DeTomaso's garage.

By letter of January 11, 1979, DeTomaso was notified that he had been discharged, as of that day, for "fraud, dishonesty and abuse of company policy." The same day, DeTomaso filed a grievance claiming his termination by Pan Am violated the agreement. The grievance form also designated his union local to act on his behalf "in the disposition and settling of this grievance." The grievance form was signed by DeTomaso and Chandiramani as the union business agent. Following a grievance hearing, the grievance was denied on the ground that DeTomaso's actions were in violation of Pan Am's employee rules of conduct.

Pursuant to the provisions of the agreement, DeTomaso appealed to the Western Regional Field Board of Adjustment on March 9, 1979. At that hearing a settlement was reached. In exchange for withdrawal of the grievance, DeTomaso would be reinstated and made whole. Accordingly, Pan Am removed the termination letter from DeTomaso's file, retroactively restored his seniority and benefits, and reinstated him to the payroll with backpay.

On December 22, 1978, prior to his discharge, DeTomaso had filed a civil complaint seeking damages for Pan Am's alleged breach of warranty of title to the battery shipment. On February 15, 1979, after his discharge but before settlement of the grievance, he filed a first amended complaint, which added causes of action for defamation and for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On June 8, 1979, DeTomaso filed a second amended complaint deleting the causes of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress and for damages related to lost wages and employment benefits resulting from his discharge. Even so, the allegation giving rise to the intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action was that "defendants wrongfully fired plaintiff from his job and falsely accused plaintiff of fraud, dishonesty and abuse of company policy as the basis for his discharge." The causes of action in the second amended complaint were tried before a jury in September 1983.

By the close of the evidence at trial, the court determined that the defamation cause of action could not stand as pleaded. However, plaintiff was allowed to amend his pleading to charge that Startzell's statements in the garage, overheard by DeTomaso's son, constituted defamation. Those statements were not alleged to constitute intentional...

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