Teen's ability to stow away on plane raises Homeland Security concerns

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A Massachusetts congressman has told Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that a Charlotte teenager's ability to stow away in the wheel well of a Boston-bound plane raises "enormous concerns about aviation safety" in the United States.

U.S. Rep. William Keating, a Democrat, pressed Napolitano about airport security during a hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

The newly-elected Keating is a former district attorney who investigated the death of 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale.

The teen was killed in November after he hid in the wheel well of a US Airways plane on the tarmac at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

Tisdale plunged several thousand feet to the ground in Milton, Mass., as the Boeing 737 made its descent into Boston.

Napolitano acknowledged the incident revealed a "breakdown" in security and said the Transportation Security Administration is investigating.

Meanwhile, the teen's family has hired a Florida attorney Christopher Chestnut to sue the airport in an effort to seek answers about why it was so easy for Tisdale to gain access onto the airport property as well as the plane.

If everything investigators in Massachusetts claim is true, Tisdale managed to slip by security and was trespassing when he apparently got inside the wheel well of a US. Airways plane.

Some people are wondering how the family can sue the airport when Tisdale was apparently irresponsible.

"A criminal act does not necessarily relieve the potential defendant of liability," said Charlotte School of Law Professor Bobby Jenkins.

But the question remains - was there a breakdown in security which led to Tisdale's death?

"Strikes me as gut-level that just shouldn't happen," Jenkins added.  "Somebody dropped the ball. Somewhere somebody did not do something right."

If the case goes to court, winning a case like this will be harder in North Carolina than in most other states.

North Carolina is one of only three states and the District of Columbia that still recognizes what's known as 'pure contributory negligence.'

It's a doctrine that says if a party who is injured in any way contributed to his or her own injuries, and the jury finds that true, then the plaintiffs are not allowed to recover any damages.

In a case spanning hundreds of miles and two states and involving many different agencies not all working with each other three months after Tisdale's death, no one has come forward to explain how it happened.

Tisdale's family attorney says that's the reason they're suing.

"Some are trying to spin this as 'Oh the family's seeking money, they're hiring a lawyer, greedy lawyers. No. Sometimes you file lawsuits to get answers. So now we can propound discovery and that's what we're preparing a lawsuit to do," said Christopher Chestnut, the attorney representing the Tisdales.

The Tisdales say they want answers and that it's a matter of public safety.

If this case is settled out of court, experts say we may never know the outcome or what actually happened, much less financial terms.  We'll have to see if it is really about public safety or something else.  Only time will tell what the real motive is.

It appears this is the first airplane stowaway case in a flight originating in the United States in 39 years.  The last time was April of 1972.

Copyright 2011 by WBTV. All Rights Reserved. AP contributed to this report.