The story of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has garnered quite a bit of attention in the last week. And rightly so. The guy snapped, cursed out a surly passenger, deployed the emergency slide, grabbed a cold one and slid of the plane onto the JFK airport tarmac. Come on…that’s awesome! The 80’s gave us the ubiquitous “go postal”, and now, thanks to Mr. Slater, we all know what it means to “go stewardess”. (Yes, I know, “stewardess” is a relic of a bygone sexist era, and not politically correct. I also realize that it is female-specific and that Steven Slater is a man. But “go flight attendant” just doesn’t work. Anyway, something tells me Mr. Slater himself would be thrilled with the expression.)
But, on the assumption that someone out there might intend to realize their own “go stewardess” moment, I thought it worthwhile to discuss the potential legal consequences of Slater’s behavior? He was, of course, arrested at his home shortly after sliding of the JetBlue aircraft, and charged with reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and criminal trespass. While I agree that Slater’s behavior is less the product of a “criminal” mind, and more the product of a” righteously-pissed-off” meets “fabulous-show-biz” mind, I DO think there are some legitimate criminal issues in this case for him.
- Point 1: Deploying the emergency slide did not injure anyone, but presumably COULD have. Pursuant to New York Penal Law § 120.20, “a person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the second degree when he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person”. As the District Attorney pointed out at Slater’s bond hearing,”the emergency chute deploys at 3,000 pounds per square inch within seconds and could easily injure or kill ground crews or others on the tarmac who are unaware the chute has been activated.” Of course, Slater’s lawyer suggested his client was being prosecuted for a hypothetical, arguing that therewas no one below the window when the chute was released. But reckless endangerment, by definition, deals with risk of harm and not actual harm. So while he had no intent to hurt anyone (his exit was clearly calculated to be only an act of pure drama), Slater arguably was reckless, and his conduct probably did at least create a risk of danger to someone.
- Point 2: A persistently rude passenger is not a defense to criminal conduct. On Friday, the AssociatedPress reported that JetBlue was suspicious of Mr. Slater’s explanation that a passenger’s “lack of civility” led to his tirade and subsequent sliding exodus. JetBlue Chief Operating Officer Rob Maruster said in a memo that the airline is still investigating, but that no one has yet corroborated Slater’s version of events. In fact, the memo noted that several passengers had given conflicting accounts of the incident. “If Mr. Slater’s story proves to be accurate, and even if there was a precipitating event that motivated his behavior, that still doesn’t excuse his actions,” Maruster wrote. Well, the same would be true in a criminal context. A surly passenger causing Slater to snap might help explain his behavior, but it does not absolve him from criminal wrongdoing.
The above notwithstanding, the real question is whether Slater will actually be prosecuted or convicted of any criminal wrongdoing. Two things are important, as I see it, to answer this question:
- The State of New York, JetBlue Airlines and the aviation industry have an incentive to seek prosecution to prevent repeat “pranks” like this. Unfortunately, the sheer “diva-ness” of Slater’s exit could be exactly what condemns him to prosecution. Can you imagine a world where every frustrated flight attendant (or passenger) pulls such a dramatic stunt -especially given the fame (and presumably book-tour/movie deal fortune) that has followed? Mr. Slater has to be the example for the next guy, so my guess is he is dealt with harshly.
- But, would you convict Steven Slater if you were on the jury? No? You wouldn’t? Of course not! And you’d have plenty of company. Everybody loves this guy. I would love to have Slater as a client. The case may not be a factual winner (see above analysis), but I’m guessing the prosecutor’s are going to have their work cut out for them if they want to convict Slater of anything. Unless the prosecutors want to take him to trial for aggravated awesomeness!