Supreme Court takes case involving El Al

WASHINGTON — 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 says 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 and that the case belongs under an international treaty known as the Warsaw Convention that 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 world's most effective.

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 searched her entire body, including her breasts and groin area, according to her lawsuit. After the search, security decided she presented no risk and let her board.

Tseng sued for $5 million, accusing El Al of false imprisonment, inflicting psychological and emotional injuries and damaging or losing some 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 monthlong 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 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.

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.

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 El Al's security measures.