Man sues TSA for spilling his mother's ashes in suitcase
Shannon Thomas filed a lawsuit in Cleveland’s federal court on Thursday over the October 5, 2012 incident. On that date, Thomas flew from Ohio to San Juan, Puerto Rico via Washington Dulles International Airport to spread his mother’s ashes in the Caribbean Sea, per her request. He had placed the cremated remains in a “very heavy and sturdy” urn that “featured a screw top,” which he then tested to make sure was properly sealed, the lawsuit said. He packed the urn in his suitcase to be checked through to his destination, and headed to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
It was not until Thomas arrived in Puerto Rico that he discovered what had transpired with his mother’s ashes en route. He claimed that during the TSA inspection, agents “negligently, carelessly, and recklessly handled the urn in such a way that caused or contributed to its opening,” and “negligently, carelessly, and recklessly replaced the lid of the urn, placed a bag inspection notice in Plaintiff’s suitcase, and sent the bag on its way.”
In court documents Thomas claims he “suffered severe and persistent emotional distress and mental anguish when he saw that the urn had been opened and the remains of his mother spilled on his clothing and interior of his suitcase.” He was left unable to spread the ashes in accordance with his mother’s wishes, and believes that the TSA’s actions violated his “right to inter the remains of his mother,” and constituted “outrageous disturbance of human remains.”
To add insult to injury, the plaintiff said, “No person speaking on behalf of the United States or TSA has ever issued an apology, explanation, or notification to [him] aside from the bag search notice.”
The TSA Blog has a post, dated just over three months before Thomas’ travel date, about traveling with crematory remains. “The subject of traveling with crematory remains has been in the news recently,” the agency said in the post. “As part of our standard operating procedures, TSA has a clear process for screening crematory remains. Our Officers routinely conduct these types of screenings throughout our nation’s airports.”
The policies state that passengers may travel with remains, as long as the airline allows. The ashes must be able to pass through the X-ray machine. The TSA says that containers holding the remains should never be opened by its agents:
If the X-ray Operator cannot clear the remains, TSA may apply other, non-intrusive means of resolving the alarm. Under no circumstances will an officer open the container, even if the passenger requests this be done. If the officer cannot determine that the container does not contain a prohibited item, the remains will not be permitted.
The Funeral Ethics Organization suggests that cremated remains be stored in “scan-able containers,” including cardboard or fiberboard, cloth, plastic, transparent glass and “probably all wooden ones.” It notes that metal, stone and ceramic are “non-scan-able urns,” and warns that “if you arrive at the airport with cremated remains that won't pass through security, you're in danger of missing your flight.” The lawsuit does not mention what kind of urn was used.
Thomas is suing the US government, the TSA and 10 of its agents, and 10 more people who had contact with his luggage. He is seeking $750,000 for “intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress,” and says that the government is liable for the damage to the urn and his personal effects.