Ejected passenger’s claims fall, and fail, under Montreal Convention

December 12, 2011

Rogers v. Continental Airlines (D. N.J. Sept. 21, 2011).  The passenger and her daughter boarded the aircraft for a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Cancun, Mexico, and stood in the forward galley while flight attendants tried to sort out their seat assignments.  While waiting, the passenger answered a call on her mobile phone.  When a flight attendant told her to end the call, she replied that “the pilot didn’t announce not to be on your phone and I’m talking to my Mom” and continued her conversation.  Unimpressed by the passenger’s asserted “mom call” exception to 14 C.F.R. § 91.21, Continental personnel requested that the passenger deplane.  After some resistance by the passenger, and after an airline employee allegedly threw some of her carry-on items from the aircraft onto the jetway, she deplaned.

Continental rebooked the passenger and her daughter on a later flight, and they arrived in Cancun “several hours later than originally scheduled.”

The passenger filed a lawsuit against Continental in state court, alleging claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract.  The airline removed the case to federal court.

After discovery, the airline moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Montreal Convention exclusively governed the passenger’s claims and that she had failed to state a viable claim under the 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.”

In opposition to the motion, the passenger resisted the application of the Convention, arguing that her injuries had occurred in the terminal after she had deplaned.  The court disagreed, finding that the passenger had admitted, in her complaint and during her deposition, that her injuries had occurred on board the aircraft and while disembarking in the jetway.  Thus, the court concluded, the Convention applied.

The court then analyzed whether the passenger had alleged facts sufficient to support a viable “bodily injury” claim under Article 17(1).  The court found that, although the passenger had complained of “physical manifestations of emotional and mental anguish” in her complaint, she had admitted during her deposition that she had, in fact, not sustained any physical injury as a result of the incident at issue.  Accordingly, the court held that her tort and contract claims failed as a matter of law and granted the airline’s motion.


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.


Passenger unable to break Montreal Convention baggage liability limit

July 27, 2008

Bassam v. American Airlines (5th Cir. (La.) July 14, 2008).  Four months after her international flight, American Airlines delivered the passenger’s missing baggage to her.  The passenger claimed that items were missing from the baggage, and she sued the airline in state court for over $5,000 for the value of the missing items.  The airline removed the case to federal court, where the passenger amended her complaint to add a claim for $15,000 for the “embarrassment and upset of not being able to dress and appear in public as was her prior practice.”

American moved for summary judgment on the grounds that (i) the passenger’s recovery for her baggage loss was limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights (approximately $1,540 at that time) under Article 22(2) of the Montreal Convention, and (ii) the passenger could not recover anything for her “embarrassment” claim because damages for emotional distress not caused by a physical injury are not recoverable under the Convention.

As to the liability limit issue, the passenger argued that the limit did not apply under Article 22(5) of the Convention; that provision removes the Article 22(2) limit “if it is proved that the damage resulted from an act or omission of the carrier, its servants or agents, done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result” and “it is also proved that such servant or agent was acting within the scope of its employment.”  The passenger contended that “[t]he four (4) month delay in recovery of the luggage, allowing [her] personal belongings to be ransacked and stolen, compounded with [American’s] refusal to take any meaningful steps to help [her] in an obvious time of need, makes [American’s] actions much more egregious, certainly rising to the level of what any impartial traveler would consider ‘willful misconduct’.”  In essence, the passenger argued that, by themselves, the delay in delivery and the losses she incurred eliminated any need for her to prove that the airline actually engaged in the type of conduct described in Article 22(5) that would result in the lifting of the liability limit set forth in Article 22(2).

The trial court rejected the passenger’s arguments and was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit.  On the liability limit issue, the appeals court held that, to break the limit under Article 22(5), a passenger must prove facts showing that airline personnel either (i) intended to cause damage, or (ii) acted recklessly with the subjective knowledge that damage would probably result from their conduct.  The Fifth Circuit held that the passenger had failed to meet this “heavy” burden by merely resting on the allegations in her pleadings regarding the delay in delivery of her baggage and the losses she incurred.  It also affirmed the trial court’s ruling with respect to the passenger’s emotional distress claim.

Note:  Before the trial court, the passenger had also argued that the Article 22(2) limit did not apply because she had not been notified of the limit before her flight.  She cited Article 3(4), which provides that “[t]he passenger shall be given written notice to the effect that where this Convention is applicable it governs and may limit the liability of carriers in respect of death or injury and for destruction or loss of, or damage to, baggage, and for delay.”  The trial court cited the plain language of Article 3(5) in rejecting her argument; that provision states that “[n]on-compliance with the provisions of the foregoing paragraphs shall not affect the existence or the validity of the contract of carriage, which shall, nonetheless, be subject to the rules of this Convention including those relating to limitation of liability.”  The passenger did not raise this issue on appeal.

Note:  On June 30, 2009, ICAO adjusted the liability limits set forth in Articles 21 and 22 of the Montreal Convention due to inflation.  Accordingly, effective December 30, 2009, the liability limit set forth in Article 22(2) was increased from 1,000 SDRs to 1,131 SDRs.  See U.S. Department of Transportation, Inflation Adjustments to Liability Limits Governed by the Montreal Convention Effective December 30, 2009, 74 F.R. 59017-18 (Nov. 16, 2009).


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.


Airline not liable to passenger for substitute transportation

October 10, 2006

Oparaji v. Virgin Atlantic Airways, Ltd. (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 19, 2006).  Instead of boarding his flight after being questioned about his passport, the passenger spent time venting his anger to airline personnel, causing him to miss the flight.  The passenger then bought a ticket from another airline.

In his lawsuit, the passenger alleged every cause of action he could dredge up, and the court denied them all.  The court held that the passenger could not recover for personal injuries under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention because his injuries were purely mental, not bodily.  And the court held that the passenger could not recover delay damages under Article 19 because the airline had no liability for the passenger’s unilateral decision to obtain substitute transportation on another airline.

Update:  By an order issued December 21, 2007, the Second Circuit affirmed the trial court’s judgment.


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