Recently, a man boarded a Jet Blue flight from New York City’s Kennedy Airport bound for Palm Beach, Florida. Prior to boarding he had been tested for the coronavirus and was awaiting test results. He failed to disclose that information to anyone from the airline. While on the flight, the man learned that he tested positive for the deadly virus. The crew and 114 passengers were stuck on the tarmac for hours awaiting instructions from health officials. Jet Blue has permanently banned the passenger from all of their future flights, indicating that the passenger, “…put their “crewmembers, customers, and federal and local officials in an unsettling situation that could have easily been avoided.” The coronavirus positive patient is currently in isolation at this time.
Many have been wondering whether the passenger should face criminal charges for his actions. Law enforcement are reportedly looking into that issue right now. What do you think?
In analyzing this unique troubling scenario, I’d like to focus on whether he “could be charged” as opposed to “should be charged.” The question I’d like to analyze is, “What, if anything, could he be charged with?”
Palm Beach, Florida law enforcement officers and prosecutors are likely scouring the Florida statutes in search of what criminal law(s) he might have broken. Their first stop may be Florida Statute 384.24 which makes it unlawful for someone to knowingly transmit certain viruses and/or diseases to another. The list of diseases/viruses includes, but is not limited to: Gonorrhea, genital herpes simplex, chlamydia, syphilis and human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV). I was not surprised to learn that the Coronavirus isn’t included on the list. After this epidemic, I suspect lawmakers will be crafting some criminal laws designed to punish those who engage in irresponsible behavior when they know, or suspect they have, the Coronavirus. As of now, there’s nothing on the books.
Even if the Coronavirus was included in Florida Statute 384.24, prosecutors would have a serious proof problem in this case. First, no one is alleging the passenger knew he was positive until after he was mid-flight. Secondly, even if other passengers on his Jet Blue flight tested positive for the virus, prosecutors would have in impossible time proving that they contracted the virus because of exposure to that particular passenger. The infected passenger’s defense lawyer would easily argue, “His fellow passengers could have been infected by someone else, maybe even days or hours before the flight.”
Assuming prosecutors could ever overcome the proof problem that they would have in establishing that the ill passenger infected other passengers, and assuming another passenger died as a result, I do believe that law enforcement and prosecutors would consider Florida Statute 782.07(1). That’s Florida’s manslaughter statute. Manslaughter is an intentional act that was neither excusable nor justified that resulted in the death of another person. To prove this charge, prosecutors would need to prove that the offender engaged in “culpable negligence,” which is defined in part as “…conduct that displayed a reckless disregard for human life, or for the safety of persons exposed to its dangerous effects.” I believe a strong argument can be made, assuming a person knew they were positive (which isn’t the case here), that boarding a flight under those conditions would be deemed a “reckless act.”
While his behavior was irresponsible and arguably reckless, I don’t believe he will be arrested. I don’t see any Florida statute that he violated that can be proven in a court of law. The “Court of Public Opinion,” however, can continue to shame and condemn him, if they so choose. There’s never been a law prohibiting that.