United Airlines squares off with Montreal passenger rights advocate in court

MONTREAL – A Quebec court began hearing testimony Friday in a 20-year-old dispute between United Airlines and a Montreal passenger rights advocate who claims the U.S. carrier is trying to muzzle criticism on his website.

The airline giant sued Jeremy Cooperstock in 2012, alleging that his website resulted in the protracted harassment of employees by disgruntled passengers.

United is seeking an injunction that would force Cooperstock to remove the employee contact information.

Jeff Wittig, a lawyer for United Airlines in Houston, testified in Quebec Superior Court that his ability to do his job was disrupted after he was inundated with calls and emails once his name appeared on the website, even though he has nothing to do with customer service.

Other employees were also targeted, the court heard, including by one man who linked the airline with the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and called a worker a “wage slave … Hitler’s dream come true.”

Wittig said the airline doesn’t object to Cooperstock’s right to run the website or complain about its performance.

But Cooperstock, who defended himself in court, said he believes United’s ultimate motive is to silence criticism, accusing the airline of being a corporate bully both through its lawsuit and a separate copyright and trademark infringement case in Federal Court over his website’s use of a similar logo and design.

“They are wasting the taxpayers’ dollars in an effort to silence and bully a critic into submission,” the McGill University associate engineering professor said outside the courtroom.

United wouldn’t allow its lawyers to comment but said in a statement that its only goal is to “prevent Mr. Cooperstock from misdirecting customers to contact individuals who cannot assist them.”

Cooperstock’s fight with the airline began from a string of minor incidents, including a damaged suit, during a 1996 trip to Japan, according to his website. He set up the website a year later.

Judge Louis Crete urged the parties to try to reach a settlement Friday, saying victory is uncertain and noting each day of trial costs $11,500, not including his salary. That was unsuccessful.

Cooperstock said outside court that United accepted his 2014 proposal to keep on the website only the names of designated customer service and legal contacts. But he said the airline rejected his request made last week for “reasonable” financial compensation for dragging the case out, offering just $1.

Cooperstock said he planned to use the money to set up a scholarship for online critics who battle with big companies.

“I’m not looking to profit personally,” he said. “This is a matter of principle and I think there has to be somebody taking a stand to do so.”

The trial is scheduled to resume next week.