Judge Rules Airline Can’t Be Sued for Not Carrying Rhino Trophy

Thursday, June 09, 2016
Photo illustration: Steve Straehley/AllGov

By David Lee, Courthouse News Service

DALLAS – A Texan who paid $350,000 to kill an endangered black rhino in Africa cannot sue Delta Airlines for refusing to ship his trophy home because it can ship whatever it chooses, so long as it applies to all passengers equally, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn said plaintiffs Corey Knowlton, Dallas Safari Club, et al. “misappl[y] the equal protection” common law principle that allows common carriers to refuse to ship items.

“Delta’s policy bans its shipment of Big Five trophies. Obviously, it does not ban the hunting of Big Five game,” the 20-page opinion (pdf) states. “Such hunters are free to ship allowed cargo with Delta, including trophies of other game. Although, because Plaintiffs are hunters or other parties who benefit from the hunting of the Big Five, Delta’s ban negatively affects them, that impact does not mean Delta’s decision is unlawful or actionable.”

Big Five trophies are the African lion, African elephant, African leopard, Cape buffalo and the white or black rhinoceros.

Knowlton made headlines in January 2014 when the Dallas Safari Club accepted his bid for a hunt and Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism issued him a permit to kill the rhino. Despite criticism from animal rights groups and several death threats, Knowlton killed the rhino four months later.

Knowlton sued Delta in October 2015, a year after Delta enacted the Big Five ban in response to public outcry over Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer’s killing a beloved lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe.

Knowlton accused Delta of robbing “wildlife habitat of its economic value, encouraging habitat conversion to agriculture, grazing, and industry, and undercutting range states’ tried-and-true conservation strategy.”

He claimed the ban “jeopardizes the benefits of tourist hunting and its centrality to conservation” in Africa.

Delta sought dismissal in January, calling it an “absurdity” for the plaintiffs to claim it must carry Big Five trophies if it carries other trophies.

“If it were true, an airline that accepted hunting shotguns as checked baggage would also have to accept AK-47s and grenade launchers,” Delta's dismissal motion stated. “Not surprisingly, the case law rejects this position.”

Lynn dismissed the claim of tortious interference Monday.

“Although plaintiffs correctly conclude that claims arising out of defamatory conduct would not usually relate to an airline’s service, plaintiffs’ tortious interference claim in this case does relate to Delta’s services,” the opinion states. “There is, in fact, no defamatory statement alleged. Delta merely altered the scope of its services by refusing to transport a designated kind of commodity – Big Five trophies. It never said the hunting or transport of such species was unlawful.”

Lynn dismissed the case in its entirety.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Delta did not immediately respond to email messages requesting comment after hours Tuesday.

The other plaintiffs were the Houston Safari Club, Conservation Force, the Campfire Association and the Tanzania Hunting Operators Association.


To Learn More:

Hunting Club Auctions First Foreign Permit to Kill Endangered Black Rhino (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Hasn’t Been Able to Stop Animal Smuggling Trade (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

U.S. Prepares to Destroy 6 Tons of Illegal Ivory (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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