Passenger not required to prove violation of regulation in order to establish that “accident” under Montreal Convention occurred

November 13, 2011

Phifer v. Icelandair (9th Cir. (Cal.) Sept. 1, 2011).  While boarding a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Reykjavik, Iceland, the passenger struck her head on an overhead video monitor that was extended in the “down” position.  She sued Icelandair, alleging liability under the Montreal Convention.

Under Article 17(1) of the Convention, “[t]he carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  To establish in a U.S. court that an “accident” under Article 17(1) took place, a plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by “an unexpected or unusual event” that was “external to the passenger.”

The trial court granted the airline’s summary judgment motion on the grounds that the passenger had failed to establish that her injury was caused by an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) because she had failed to prove that the airline had violated any “FAA requirements” by having the video monitor in the down position during boarding.

The Ninth Circuit, in a brief opinion, reversed and remanded the case.  The appeals court held that, although FAA requirements may be relevant to determining whether an “accident” occurred, proving that an airline violated a government regulation is not “a prerequisite to suit under Article 17.”  According to the appeals court, “[t]he Supreme Court has suggested that a per se rule requiring a regulatory violation would be improper.”


Court denies airline’s summary judgment motion in trip and fall case

September 25, 2011

Walsh v. Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V. (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 12, 2011).  The plaintiff tripped over a metal bar and fell in a departure gate seating area while walking to join a line of persons waiting to board a flight from Amsterdam to New York.  The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he sustained a fractured elbow as a result of the fall and that, under the Montreal Convention, KLM is liable for $3 million in damages.

Under Article 17(1) of the Convention, “[t]he carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  KLM moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff was not injured while “embarking” and that, even if he was, his injury was not caused by an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1).

The court denied KLM’s motion.  The court first ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude the plaintiff was injured while “embarking” because the incident occurred while the airline was “exercising control” over the plaintiff.  The court reasoned that the airline had control over the plaintiff because the trip and fall took place in the departure gate seating area and while the plaintiff was walking to join a line in response to the airline’s boarding announcements.

The court then concluded that a reasonable jury could also find that the plaintiff’s trip and fall was an “accident” under Article 17(1), although it admitted that this was the “more difficult question.”  To establish in a U.S. court that an “accident” under Article 17(1) took place, a plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by “an unexpected or unusual event” that was “external to the passenger.”  The airline contended that the plaintiff’s fall was “his own internal reaction to an inert piece of equipment, installed and operating as intended.”  The court disagreed, ruling that a jury could find that the metal bar was unexpected, and thus “external” to the plaintiff, because the photographs submitted by the plaintiff showed that the bar protruded past the seating area and was similar in color to the floor.


Airline not liable for passenger’s deplaning injury caused by fellow passenger

September 21, 2011

Goodwin v. British Airways Plc (D. Mass. Aug. 8, 2011).  The plaintiff had traveled on a British Airways flight from London to Paris.  She alleged in her complaint that, while deplaning, she lost her balance, one of her feet slid into the opening between the aircraft and the jetway and she fell and fractured her ankle.  In her deposition, the plaintiff testified that her fall had been caused by another passenger bumping into her.  According to the airline’s witnesses, the plaintiff lost her footing and fell on her own.

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment in which they agreed that the Montreal Convention governed the plaintiff’s claim.  Under Article 17(1) of the Convention, “[t]he carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  Thus, as the court noted, the “threshold inquiry” in a personal injury case governed by the Convention is whether an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) occurred.

To establish in a U.S. court that an “accident” under Article 17(1) took place, a plaintiff must prove “that (1) an unusual or unexpected event that was external to [the plaintiff] occurred, and (2) this event was a malfunction or abnormality in the aircraft’s operation.”

The airline contended that the first step of the above test had not been satisfied because some bumping and jostling from other passengers is usual and expected while deplaning.  The court disagreed.  Viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiff, the court found that the alleged bump by the other passenger, which the plaintiff described as having “enough force that it knocked me off my balance and I fell,” was more than “run of the mill jostling” and thus was unexpected.

The airline fared better with respect to the second part of the test.  It contended that the plaintiff’s fall had not resulted from the aircraft’s operation because airline personnel had not had any direct involvement in the events leading to the fall.  The court agreed.  Again viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiff, the court found that the plaintiff’s fall had been solely caused by another passenger and that there was no evidence of any “out of the ordinary” conditions during deplaning that could have imposed a duty on airline personnel to intervene.  Accordingly, the court granted the airline’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s motion.

Note:  On September 6, 2011, the plaintiff noted her appeal of the court’s ruling.


Race discrimination claim preempted by Warsaw Convention

March 8, 2011

Sewer v. LIAT (1974) Ltd. (D. Virgin Islands Feb. 16, 2011).  The plaintiff had purchased a ticket for a LIAT flight from the British Virgin Islands to Antigua.  The flight was overbooked, so airline personnel informed the plaintiff that he would have to take a later flight.  Undeterred, the plaintiff (and the other waiting would-be passengers) pushed past the airline’s gate personnel and boarded the aircraft.  Airline personnel asked the plaintiff to leave the aircraft because he did not have a seat, and he did so.  An off-duty police officer arrested and handcuffed the plaintiff, who was briefly detained in an airport holding cell and released without being charged with any crime.

The plaintiff filed suit against the airline, asserting claims of race discrimination, defamation and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, although the plaintiff only pursued the discrimination claim.  The court described the plaintiff as “a black West Indian with dreadlocks in his hair who believes in the underlying tenets of Rastafarianism.”

LIAT moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion.  The court agreed with the airline that the plaintiff’s discrimination claim was preempted by the Warsaw Convention, citing King v. American Airlines (written by now-Justice Sotomayor) and several other cases.  The court also held that the plaintiff had no claim under the Warsaw Convention because bumping is a well-established airline industry practice and, thus, is not an “unexpected or unusual event” constituting an “accident” under Article 17.  Finally, the court held that, even if the bumping had constituted an “accident,” the plaintiff’s claim still failed because his injuries, bruised and swollen wrists, were caused by the off-duty police officer in the airport, not by airline personnel on the aircraft.

Note:  Plaintiff filed the case in 2002, and LIAT filed its summary judgment motion in 2009.  Cases seem to move at a leisurely pace in the Virgin Islands, in both federal and state courts.


Airline obtains summary judgment in case involving passenger assault and false arrest claims

November 30, 2010

Ginsberg v. American Airlines (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2010).  The plaintiff was a passenger on an American flight from New York (JFK) to Turks and Caicos.  After visiting the restroom during the flight, the plaintiff moved a food cart out of his way so he could return to his seat.  However, a flight attendant had instructed him to wait for her to move the cart.  The plaintiff and the flight attendant had a confrontation about the cart that involved some physical contact but no injury to the plaintiff.

Upon arrival in Turks and Caicos, the local police boarded the aircraft and asked the plaintiff to accompany them.  The police questioned the plaintiff at their headquarters and then drove him to his hotel.  American refused to transport the plaintiff on the return flight, so he purchased a substitute ticket on a US Airways flight.

The plaintiff sued American in state court, alleging causes of action for assault and battery, false arrest, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress (related to the return flight) and breach of contract (also related to the return flight).  The plaintiff sought actual damages of over $325,000 and punitive damages of $1 million.  American removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment, contending that all of the plaintiff’s tort claims were preempted by the Montreal Convention and offering to refund him the value of the return portion of his ticket in satisfaction of his breach of contract claim.

The court held that the plaintiff’s claims for assault and battery, false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress, to the extent they were based on the in-flight events, were preempted by the Montreal Convention.  The court also held that, for the in-flight events, the plaintiff had no claim under Article 17(1) of the Convention, which provides that an airline “is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The court reasoned that the plaintiff had no claim under Article 17(1) because no “accident” had occurred, as the plaintiff himself was the proximate cause of his confrontation with the flight attendant, and because the plaintiff had not suffered any “bodily injury” as a result of such confrontation.

The court then held that the plaintiff’s false arrest claim, to the extent it was based on the alleged conduct by American personnel at the police headquarters, was not preempted by the Montreal Convention but that it failed nonetheless because the plaintiff had not proffered any evidence of false statements made by such personnel to the police.

Next, the court held that the plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed.  The court concluded that this claim, which was based on American’s refusal to transport the plaintiff on the return flight, was deficient because the plaintiff had failed to proffer evidence that American had engaged in “the requisite outrageous and extreme conduct” or that he had suffered “the requisite severe emotional distress.”

Finally, the court held that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was not preempted by the Montreal Convention, but it noted that American had offered to refund the value of the return portion of the plaintiff’s ticket.  The court indicated that American would also be liable to the plaintiff for the “additional cost factor” associated with the substitute US Airways ticket.

Update:  On October 25, 2010, the plaintiff appealed the court’s decision to the Second Circuit.


Airline’s liability for injury caused by fellow passenger limited by Montreal Convention

February 28, 2010

Wright v. American Airlines, Inc. (N.D. Tex. Feb. 8, 2010).  Article 21 of the Montreal Convention governs the compensation owed by an airline for a passenger’s bodily injury or death.  Where an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) has occurred, Article 21(1) provides that the airline is strictly liable for provable damages not exceeding 100,000 Special Drawing Rights (“SDRs”), or about US$153,000 at the current conversion rate.  Under Article 21(2), an airline can avoid liability for damages exceeding 100,000 SDRs only if it can prove that (i) such damages were not due to its “negligence or other wrongful act or omission,” or (ii) such damages were “solely due to the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of a third party.”

In Wright, during the aircraft’s climb to cruising altitude, and while the “fasten seat belt” light was still on, a passenger stood up and attempted to remove an item from an overhead compartment.  An object fell from the compartment and struck another passenger on his head, injuring him.

The injured passenger sued American under the Montreal Convention, alleging that the airline was liable for damages “exceeding 100,000 Special Drawing Rights as provided in Article 21.”  American moved for partial summary judgment, contending that, under Article 21(2), it should not be held liable for any damages in excess of 100,000 SDRs because the plaintiff’s injuries had not been caused by the airline’s negligence and had been solely caused by a third party, the passenger who had opened the overhead compartment.  Oddly, the plaintiff did not respond to the motion, even though it appears that he was represented by two attorneys.

American prevailed on its unopposed motion.  The court found that American had presented sufficient evidence to prove that the “plaintiff’s injuries were not caused by any negligence, omission, or other wrongful act on its part or on the part of its flight crew.”  Specifically, the court found that the airline had done all that it could do to prevent the other passenger from leaving his seat by making a preflight announcement that the “fasten seat belt” sign had been turned on and that passengers should be careful when opening an overhead compartment.  The court also found that the flight attendant seated closest to the other passenger could not see him stand up because she was seated during the aircraft’s climb and her view was obscured by a wall.  Accordingly, the court held that the plaintiff could not recover damages from American in excess of 100,000 SDRs.


Ninth Circuit again rejects passengers’ deep vein thrombosis arguments

August 4, 2008

Twardowski v. American Airlines, Inc. (9th Cir. (Cal.) July 30, 2008).  The passengers in these consolidated appeals alleged that they had suffered injuries from deep vein thrombosis (“DVT”) they had developed during flights for which they had bought tickets between 2001 and 2004.  They alleged that the airlines were liable for such injuries because the airlines had not warned the passengers of the risk of developing DVT, despite public statements that the International Air Transport Association (“IATA”), airline medical officers, and even the august English House of Lords, had made, before the flights at issue, suggesting that the airlines issue such warnings.

Before the trial court, the airlines had successfully moved for summary judgment under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, which applied to the flights at issue and thus provided the passengers’ exclusive remedy against the airlines.  Article 17 of the Convention governs an airline’s liability for a passenger’s death or bodily injury; it provides as follows:  “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in the event of the death or wounding of a passenger or any other bodily injury suffered by a passenger, if the accident which caused the damage so sustained took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The U.S. Supreme Court has defined an “accident” under Article 17 as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger,” not “the passenger’s own internal reaction to the usual, normal, and expected operation of the aircraft.”

In separate prior decisions, the Ninth Circuit had held that developing DVT during a flight is not an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17, and that an airline’s failure to warn about the risk of DVT is not an “event” within the meaning of the foregoing Supreme Court definition of an “accident.”  In Twardowski, the passengers – reaching for what was almost certainly the last arrow in the DVT quiver – argued that the airlines’ failure to comply with the suggestions by IATA and others to warn passengers about DVT was an unexpected “event” and, thus, an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The Ninth Circuit rejected the passengers’ arguments.  It reasoned that an airline’s failure to warn a passenger about DVT does not become an unexpected “event,” and thus an Article 17 “accident,” just because various groups and individuals have publicly suggested that the airline give such warnings.  The court drew a distinction between the general suggestions made to the airlines in this case and the specific requests for health-related assistance made by passengers to airlines in certain other cases in which the courts held that the airlines’ failure to comply with those requests constituted an unexpected “event.”


Court declines to dismiss complaint in passenger heart attack case

April 15, 2008

Watts v. American Airlines, Inc. (S.D. Ind. Oct. 10, 2007).  During a flight from Japan to Chicago in 2005, the passenger had a heart attack and died in a lavatory.  He was discovered by cleaning personnel after the aircraft had landed.

The plaintiff, the passenger’s wife, filed a lawsuit against American.  The airline moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim under the Montreal Convention, which applied to the transportation at issue and thus provided the plaintiff’s exclusive remedy.

Article 17(1) of the Convention governs an airline’s liability for a passenger’s death or bodily injury; it provides as follows:  “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The U.S. Supreme Court has defined an “accident” as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger,” not “the passenger’s own internal reaction to the usual, normal, and expected operation of the aircraft.”  In its motion, American contended that no “accident” had occurred because the passenger’s heart attack was caused by his own internal condition that was not related to the operation of the aircraft.

The court disagreed.  Taking the plaintiff’s allegations as true, the court reasoned that “American Airlines’ unusual or unexpected failure to recognize and/or respond to [the passenger’s] heart attack, and its failure to conform to industry custom and practices by responding to his medical emergency, could constitute a link in the chain of the events causing the ill-fated ‘accident’ on board [the flight].”  Accordingly, the court denied American’s motion to dismiss.


Montreal Convention inapplicable where injured passenger unable to prove that airline regarded multi-airline carriage as “single operation”

February 27, 2008

Kruger v. United Air Lines, Inc. (N.D. Cal. Nov. 1, 2007).  While waiting on a jetway to board a flight from San Francisco to Seattle, the passenger was inadvertently struck on the head by a backpack swung by another boarding passenger.  The passenger was able to board but became “dazed and nauseated” during the flight due to the incident.

The passenger’s complaint against United alleged that the Montreal Convention governed her claims and also that the airline was liable under various state common law tort causes of action, including negligence, negligent training and supervision of employees and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

United moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the passenger’s state common law claims were preempted by the Montreal Convention.  In its motion, United expressed doubt that the Montreal Convention governed the case, as the incident appeared to have occurred in connection with a domestic flight, but United correctly stated that the court had to accept the passenger’s allegation that the Convention governed as true for purposes of the motion.  As previously reported, the court held that the Convention preempted the passenger’s state common law tort causes of action but that she had stated sufficient facts to plead a cause of action under Article 17 of the Convention by alleging “bodily injury” (the in-flight nausea) that had been caused by an “accident” (the backpack incident) during the course of embarking.

United then moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Montreal Convention did not apply because the jetway incident had occurred in connection with a domestic flight, not an international flight.  Prior to the flight at issue, the passenger had traveled on a United flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and, before that, on a Qantas flight from Australia to Los Angeles.  Since more than one airline was involved in the transportation, for the flight at issue to constitute “international carriage” governed by the Montreal Convention, it had to be part of “one undivided carriage” under Article 1(3).  Under Article 1(3), a series of flights is considered “one undivided carriage” only “if it has been regarded by the parties as a single operation.”

The court held that the passenger had failed to produce sufficient objective evidence that United had regarded her flights “as a single operation.”  In support of its conclusion, the court noted that the United and Qantas tickets “were not issued by the same travel agent or made as part of a package,” that “they were reserved and paid for separately,” that “the two airlines did not have code sharing agreements and were not partners in the same worldwide alliance,” that “there were no communications between the airlines to coordinate the flights,” and that “the facts of one airline’s itinerary or ticketing was not reflected on the other airline’s itinerary or ticket.”  Accordingly, the court granted United’s motion for summary judgment.

Note:  The court’s summary judgment ruling did not end the case.  The court allowed the passenger to refile her state common law tort causes of actions against United – the very ones that the court had earlier held were preempted by the Montreal Convention – and she did so.


Passenger’s seating decision dooms her personal injury lawsuit

September 23, 2007

Zarlin v. Air France (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 6, 2007).  A flight attendant reseated the passenger during an international flight after she complained that the passenger in front of her had deliberately reclined his seat so that it touched her.  Without informing a flight attendant, the passenger returned to her original seat because the alternative seat was too close to a lavatory.  The passenger in front then reclined his seat again, this time “striking and injuring” the plaintiff’s knee.

The passenger sued the airline, seeking damages for “her medical costs, the value lost in a country club membership, and expenses incurred for pool membership and to resurface her tennis court.”  Air France moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the passenger’s injury was not the result of an “accident” with the meaning of Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, arguing that (i) the reclining of the seat was not an “unusual or unexpected” event and thus not an “accident,” and (ii) the passenger’s decision to return to her original seat was the proximate cause of her injury.

The court granted the airline’s motion.  Although the court expressed “serious doubts” that the reclining of the seat was an “accident,” the court ruled that the existence of disputed facts made the granting of summary judgment on this issue improper.  The passenger was not so lucky with the airline’s proximate cause argument.  The court held that the passenger’s decision to return to her seat was the proximate cause of her injury, reasoning that if she had “remained in the new seat she was offered by Defendant’s flight crew, the incident in question could not have taken place.”  The court concluded that because no reasonable jury could find that the airline’s conduct was the proximate cause of the passenger’s injury, the passenger had failed to establish that an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17 had taken place.  Since the Warsaw Convention provided the passenger’s only possible remedy, her claim failed.


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