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US: Toilet proves short cut to jail for Indian doctor

August 09, 2008 00:25 IST

Dr Sivaprasad D Madduri of Missouri, who landed in jail when he attempted to use the toilet during a flight, has initiated legal action against Southwest Airlines.

"It was the longest day of my life," Dr Madduri, 65, a urologist at NorthWest Clinic in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, told India Abroad.

He had boarded SA's 7.20 am Flight 1226 from St Louis to Las Vegas to attend the annual convention of the American Association of Physicians of Indian origin. Because he takes blood pressure medicines that have a diuretic effect, he needed to use the toilet two hours into the flight.

"I was sitting in the 6th row, so I got up and walked towards the front lavatory. The flight attendant, Lora Lee Minton, abruptly stopped me and shouted at me, 'Go back! This bathroom is occupied, and you cannot stand here.'" Though shocked by the tone, Dr Madduri says, he returned to his seat. Minutes later, when he saw the bathroom door open, he headed back. The same flight attendant screamed at him, he says, and pushed him back towards the seat.

Dr Madduri said he explained his problem to Minton, but she pushed him into his seat. "I was totally lost. In my 38 years in the United States, I have flown several times have never been treated like this. I was confused, frustrated and did not know what to do except to go back and sit in my seat."

Minutes later, the pilot came out of the toilet, and walked into the cockpit, closing the door behind him. Some others were standing in line for the rear lavatory, and when it became free, Dr Madduri asked Minton if he could use the facilities. Minton agreed.
As the plane approached Las Vegas, the captain asked passengers to remain seated.

Minutes after the landing, two uniformed policemen came up to Dr Madduri and asked him to follow them. When he asked them what it was about, one of them told him, 'Sir, you'd better shut up! You are already in trouble. Whatever you say could be used against you.'

He was later told he had reportedly caused a disturbance while the plane was in flight, and that Federal Bureau of Investigation officials were on their way. During questioning, he learnt that the flight attendant had reported him.

The officials told him that he was not supposed to go towards the toilet when the pilot was using it. "The attendant could have just told me as much," Dr Madduri points out.

Dr Madduri told the officials he was heading for the AAPI conference, and as editor of the organisation's journal, was scheduled into a meeting. He was told a federal judge would decide when he could go.

"I could not believe what I was hearing; things were getting worse by the minute. I was terrified and was almost in tears," Dr Madduri says.

He was photographed, fingerprinted three times and put in a jail cell with 43 other inmates. Dr Madduri says he did not sleep or eat that night. "I counted minutes; I did not know what was going to happen to me, when I was going to get out, what was in the future. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I was praying, which was the only thing I could do," he says.

With cuffs on his ankles and hands he was taken to be photographed and fingerprinted again in court. One federal guard called him insulting names and ordered him repeatedly to shut up, Dr Madduri says. "He told me that he was 'going to kick my ass' for every move I made. I was scared and in tears all the time."

Finally at 2:30 pm, he was brought before the judge. The public defender assigned to him told Madduri he would be released if he pleaded guilty and paid a fine of $2,500, and that refusal to do so could lead to a long-drawn court battle that could involve multiple trips to Las Vegas.

"I was exhausted, depressed and completely depleted; I just wanted to get out. So I agreed to whatever the public defender suggested: I pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge and agreed to pay the fine," says Dr Madduri. He was released at 6 pm.

Ironically, even before he filed his complaint with the Southwest Airlines officials, he got a letter from Frederick Taylor Jr, senior manager at the airline's customer service communications, offering a $100 voucher for a future flight.

"Sometimes, an explanation for the reason why things happen is not always possible, and the bizarre behaviour of the individual during your June 26 flight to Las Vegas supports this point," Taylor said in a letter accompanying the voucher. "While I am unable to explain the circumstances surrounding the disruption, I think it is important to offer my heartfelt apologies for any concerns you may have had as a result of this event".

"Naturally, we don't want this experience to affect your feelings about flying with us in the future, or for it to be your last recollection of traveling with our company. In fact we would consider it a privilege if you gave us another opportunity to provide you with better memories."

Dr Madduri points out that the letter is as good as a guilty plea, more so when it came with the $100 offer. He would not discuss details of the case he is filing against the airline, but said such a move was necessary. "If I do not act, more people will be victims like me. If they could do this to a 65-year-old physician, they can behave much worse to anyone of colour," he said. 

George Joseph