004: Mommy, He’s Touching Me!

Stella Case No. 004, Originally Published: 18 September 2002

Attorney Philip Shafer of Ashland, Ohio, flew on Delta Airlines from New Orleans to Cincinnati and was given a seat, he says, next to a fat man.

We love to fly. Does it show?

“He was a huge man,” Shafer says. “He and I [were] literally and figuratively married from the right kneecap to the shoulder for two hours. That’s not what I paid for.”

Shafer therefore “suffered embarrassment, severe discomfort, mental anguish and severe emotional distress,” he claims in a lawsuit against the airline. Shafer figures this embarrassment, discomfort, mental anguish and emotional distress could be cured by a $9,500 payment from Delta, but he’s willing to settle out of court.

“Literally married”? Surely the “huge man” is ready for a divorce, and will happily settle for half of Shafer’s net worth.


  • “Ashland Attorney Sues over ‘Jet Jam’,” Mansfield News Journal, 1 August 2002.

Case Status

I was not able to find any updates on the disposition of this case. It was a runner-up for the 2002 awards.


Lisa Jo in Indiana: “I think the ‘fat man’ in question should sue for divorce and get half.”

You’d make an absolutely vicious lawyer, Lisa Jo! 🙂

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), obesity by itself does not constitute a “disability” that must be “accommodated” by businesses that serve the public. It would be interesting to know what happened in this case, but I suspect it was either withdrawn or thrown out. (Neither! See more in the second comment.)

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12 Comments on “004: Mommy, He’s Touching Me!

  1. Based on this NY Times article, it looks like the case was settled out of court.

    Good catch, and I wonder why that didn’t come up in my search! Though sadly, that’s pretty much the entire update: “The matter was eventually settled out of court, but Mr. Shafer says the issue was never money. Instead, it was about forcing airlines to establish policies that recognize the rights of standard-size passengers.” And frankly, I’m fully behind that goal. Though using the argument that one is “literally married” to their seatmate isn’t quite the way to go about it, in my opinion. -rc

    • Having been surrounded by other passengers’ pulchritude (in a middle seat between 2 well-fed people with rolls literally smothering me), I have pure sympathy for the man. My flight was so nasty I complained rather bitterly upon arrival. To get rid of me they upgraded my return to 1st class. Oh, and I think I lost 10 lbs from all the friction, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Just miserable.

    • Randy, if you look at seat widths on seat guru, you will find that plane seating is no longer appropriate for anyone over average size. I can remember this not always being the case years ago, and being able to sit comfortably.

      Now my shoulders are well in excess of the average seat width, so I will always be in someone else’s seat on an airplane. I take a window seat whenever possible so I can contort myself against the plane wall a bit and not be rubbing against someone.

      I used to fly quite a bit, but United treated me and my wife so terribly (and we were “Premier” status customers!) that we reprogrammed our budget into a comfortable road car and started driving everywhere instead. We saved money, were much more comfortable, could take extra things, could change plans on a whim, hit multiple places without having to go through gyrations, etc., and I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Now, flying is for places we can’t really get to by car, and that’s all. All this was before COVID, of course, but I can’t believe people will be willing to suffer the indignities of Cattle Class™ once COVID is a memory. IMO, the airlines will remain in trouble long after the pandemic is over, and they brought it on themselves. -rc

      • I completely agree with the complaints about uncomfortably narrow airline seats. When I flew for the 1st time back around 1986, I fit in the coach seat just fine. Last time I flew (back around 2015) I found that I had to wedge myself into the seat & use a seat belt extender! Granted I’d gained some weight over the years but not *THAT* much! I joked with a flight attendant that they must be making the seats narrower and she replied that they *were* intentionally making the seats narrower. I assume that this was done to fit more seats on the plane, and to force very large passengers to purchase a 2nd seat! And the airlines wonder why people despise them so much. (smh)

        • I recall when Boeing started selling the 787, it was billed as ‘designed for comfortable nine-across economy class seating’.

          Most airlines, naturally, fitted it out with ten-across seating, which made for the narrowest seats on just about any long haul airliner.

      • I experienced this for myself the last time I flew back in 2008. It was cross-country with multiple connections each way. I think I ended up on a total of six planes that trip. I found myself in quite a lot of pain until the very last plane on the way home, which was much older. It had the old plane phones duct taped over (they hadn’t even been in the other planes), the seats were worn, and everything was rather shabby, but suddenly, I was no longer in pain. I was able to fit in the seat comfortably, as opposed to all the others, where I was squished between the armrests on both sides. I couldn’t believe the difference with the plane that was probably ten or fifteen years older than the others. From what I hear, things have gotten even worse in the past twelve years. Between the seats and the security theater of the TSA, I plan on never flying again.

      • Good to see the Stellas back … I still quote them, occasionally, when teaching my students about the need to verify stories before they go to air with stories that are just wrong. 🙂

        But as an aside, I’m not sure I agree with your view that “…I can’t believe people will be willing to suffer the indignities of Cattle Class™ …”

        I remember writing a blog post about 5 years ago and making the point that …

        “Air travel today is incredibly cheap. That’s why Aussies can think nothing of heading off to Bali for a week -– or why Americans can fly home to see family for Thanksgiving from (say) Miami to Minneapolis return for about $250.

        “Yes -– you have to pay for a toastie on Jetstar, you are limited to 7kg of carry-on luggage (including handbags) on most domestic airlines, inflight WiFi (even if available) costs up to $20 a day on US domestic carriers … but you can still fly to more places, more often, for less money than ever before.”

        Unless you’ve flown domestic within the U.S., you don’t know what you’re missing. UAL or AA from the U.S. to overseas is great, even in economy. But within the U.S., it’s a very different matter. Thus, “I can’t believe people will be willing to suffer the indignities of Cattle Class™” [if they don’t “have to”!] -rc

  2. My husband was seated next to a large man on a flight. The man asked if he could lift the arm rest because they’d “both be more comfortable” with it up. To me, the only correct response to such a request is no — or more bluntly, hell no. But my husband allowed it. He was miserable for the whole flight. The funny thing is that the man was traveling with others and had purposefully booked a seat separate from them.

  3. I flew from Amsterdam to LAX in a middle seat. I weighed in at about 290 which I think qualified me for the “large” man as described above. (I feel much better at a svelt 215 now). The other two seat mates in my row dwarfed me. It was physically impossible for all three sets of shoulders to occupy the same geometric plane for those 13+ hours. Miserable is an understatement of immense proportions.

    Most large people are more uncomfortable than you know, both physically and mentally, knowing that they are impinging on your space. Doesn’t make it any better for either of you but don’t think that most of them are unaware of the awkwardness.


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