Airport Prank Still Doesn't Fly

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006

Southwest Airlines is known for its fun and jovial climate. Flight attendants regularly tell jokes during flights. And its employees -- from the executive suite on down -- routinely dress in outlandish costumes for Halloween and Mardi Gras. The airline's unique workplace has even resulted in its own reality show on the A&E network.

But the airline's jocular style may have gone too far. A federal appellate judge ruled last week that the city of Albuquerque and its police department can be sued for a practical joke played on a new Southwest employee at the New Mexico city's airport in 2002. The judge further ruled that Southwest is not liable for damages but that the plaintiff may be eligible for workers' compensation payments.

In a lawsuit, Southwest Airlines Co. customer service agent Marcie Fuerschbach claimed that on Aug. 18, 2002, her supervisors and co-workers staged her mock arrest at the airport as part of a prank to celebrate the end of her probationary status with the airline. According to the complaint, three city police officers assigned to the airport approached Fuerschbach while she was working at the Southwest ticket counter at Albuquerque International Sunport airport. The officers informed her that Southwest had discovered an outstanding warrant for her arrest during the airline's background check.

The officers then confiscated her airport badge, employee badge and keys. "At which time, Marcie began to cry and shake uncontrollably," the complaint stated.

One of the officers then "forcibly" handcuffed Fuerschbach's hands behind her back, "causing her great pain," according to the complaint.

"Marcie continued to cry and felt completely embarrassed and humiliated as the three police officers took her away from the crowded Southwest ticket counter [and] escorted her in front of the crowded Northwest Airlines ticket counter toward the elevator," the report said.

As she was being escorted out of the airport, one of Fuerschbach's co-workers yelled out, "Congratulations for being off probation," the report said. Nearby co-workers broke out into applause and one of her colleagues pinned her lapel with Southwest wings.

But after the officers released her from the handcuffs, the complaint said, Fuerschbach, now 48, continued to "cry uncontrollably" and had to take ibuprofen and Tums to ease her discomfort. She was allowed to leave work early. After she returned to work the next day, she "began to sob" in front of her co-workers. Fuerschbach later sought counseling for the incident.

"It was meant as a celebration and we regret that the prank was interpreted as anything other than that," said Southwest spokesman Ed Stewart, adding that Fuerschbach's co-workers were "completely shocked" by her reaction and that the airline was "just trying to make an employee feel welcomed." It could not be determined if the supervisor was disciplined for staging the prank.

Stewart said the Albuquerque incident was the first he knew of in which a new employee was hazed. He said the airline is "pleased" with the court's decision last week.

The suit claims emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

The suit was filed in May 2003 and, after nearly three years of appeals and hearings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that Southwest could not be held responsible in the suit. Fuerschbach can, however, seek damages through the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Act because she claimed injury during horseplay in the workplace.

Fuerschbach's lawyer, Tom Gulley of Lewis and Roca, said his client, who still works for Southwest, plans on suing the police and the city but declined to say if his client will seek workers' compensation. Gulley said the court battles have been a "difficult experience" for his client.

Gulley said they were waiting to see if city officials or the police would appeal the court's decision. If they do not and no settlement is reached, the case would return to U.S. District Court in New Mexico to be heard by a jury. The police department declined to comment.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company