DOT enforces consumer-friendly interpretation of Montreal Convention baggage liability provisions

January 4, 2011

As previously reported, on March 26, 2009 DOT issued a “Guidance on Airline Baggage Liability and Responsibilities of Code-Share Partners Involving International Itineraries” that states in part as follows:  “Although carriers may wish to have tariff terms that prohibit passengers from including certain items in checked baggage, once a carrier accepts checked baggage, whatever is contained in the checked baggage is protected, subject to the terms of the [Montreal] Convention, up to the limit of 1000 SDRs (Convention, Article 22, para. 2).”  (On December 30, 2009, the 1,000 SDR limit was increased to 1,131 SDRs, which is currently equivalent to about $1,750.)

Upon receiving a consumer complaint after the 90-day grace period for compliance with the Guidance, DOT initiated an enforcement action regarding Air France’s policies and practices with respect to items of checked baggage lost or damaged in transit to or from the United States.  DOT’s specific concern was over the airline’s General Conditions of Carriage, which disclaimed liability for “valuable, fragile or perishable items” in checked baggage and the reliance of the airline’s Customer Relations Department on such disclaimer to deny liability for the loss or damage of jewelry, electronic equipment and similar items.

By a Consent Order issued on December 23, 2010 (Order 2010-12-26), DOT announced that it and Air France had reached a settlement.  Under the settlement, Air France agreed to modify its policies and practices in order to comply with the Guidance and to pay a compromise assessment of $50,000 (and an additional $50,000 should it violate the Order within a year).

Note:  In a November 18, 2010 ruling, the Canadian Transportation Agency struck down an airline’s tariff rule, as well as a proposed revised version of such rule, that purported to preclude an airline’s liability for fragile and valuable items in baggage checked in connection with carriage subject to the Montreal Convention.  See Lukács v. WestJet (Decision No. 477-C-A-2010).  On February 1, 2011, the Federal Court of Appeal denied WestJet’s application for leave to appeal the agency’s decision.


The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: revenue protection weapon for airlines

December 5, 2010

Note:  This post is an abridged version of the article I wrote for the Autumn 2010 issue of Issues in Aviation Law and Policy, which is published by the International Aviation Law Institute of DePaul University College of Law.  Click here for the full version.

Until the last few years, airlines sustained significant revenue losses from “bust-outs” by Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC)-accredited travel agencies.  In a bust-out, an agency’s owners validate and sell vast numbers of tickets in a short period of time to individuals and other agencies, fail to report the sales to ARC, and disappear with the proceeds.  Due to technological innovations and aggressive enforcement activities, primarily driven by ARC, bust-outs are now comparatively rare.

Airlines still suffer revenue losses from ticket-related fraud, but now that type of fraud mostly results from online conduct by persons who are not affiliated with ARC agencies.  Online fraud, primarily the illicit sale of tickets purchased over the Internet by persons using stolen credit and debit card numbers, is a significant source of revenue loss for airlines.  This past summer, federal authorities charged 38 defendants “in a series of indictments that allege an extensive network of black market travel agents who used the stolen identities of thousands of victims as part of a multi-million dollar fraud scheme to purchase airline tickets for their customers.”  News Release, Office of the U.S. Attorney, W. District of Missouri, Black Market Travel Agents – 38 Defendants Indicted in Multi-Million Dollar Fraud (July 9, 2010).  Losses from this scheme allegedly exceeded $20 million.  According to one survey, airlines suffered losses of over $1.4 billion in 2008 due to online fraud.  Airlines Tackle $1.4 Billion Online Fraud Challenge, Cybersource (Mar. 16, 2009).

Airlines also sustain online-related revenue losses from fraud by frequent flyer mileage brokers and website abuse by “screen scraper” travel information providers.  Ironically, just as technology was instrumental in reducing the incidence of bust-outs, it is technology, mainly in the form of the Internet, which makes these other forms of fraud and abuse possible.

Alaska Airlines’s recent successful use of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1030, in federal court against a defiant, long-time frequent flyer mileage broker demonstrates that the Act can be effectively used to combat online fraud and abuse.  Having the CFAA as a gateway to federal court, through federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, is particularly important for airlines because, in general, cases move more quickly, and summary judgment is more readily available, in federal district courts than in state courts.  Moreover, airlines can no longer depend as heavily as they once did on federal trademark infringement or other Lanham Act causes of action to obtain federal question jurisdiction, as mileage brokers appear to be lessening their use of airline logos, trade names, and other trademarks on their websites in an effort to avoid drawing airlines’ attention.

A CFAA cause of action can serve as a powerful weapon, but, in general, courts are cautious about using the CFAA in a civil setting and thoroughly scrutinize evidence offered by a plaintiff in support of its CFAA cause of action.  As a result, an airline must make sure that its website’s terms of use are correctly set up so they can help support a CFAA cause of action, and as soon as online-based fraud or abuse is detected, an airline needs to take steps to ensure that it will be able to prove the elements of a CFAA cause of action, particularly with respect to the “loss” element, which various federal courts have construed differently.  These protective measures are discussed in detail below.

Introduction to the Act

In the early 1980s, computer hackers began to penetrate government and private computer systems.  Gradually, the public began to become aware of these shadowy figures, who used a combination of telephones and “social engineering” (tricking people into disclosing information) to hack into computer systems and steal information or cause damage.

Oddly, Hollywood provided a major impetus for legislative change to address the hacker problem.  In 1983, the movie “WarGames” was released, and it dramatically increased the public’s – and Congress’ – awareness of computer hacking.  In the movie, a high school-age computer geek unknowingly hacks into a NORAD computer system using his personal computer and a telephone and nearly causes a global nuclear war.  Partly as a result of this movie, and its far-fetched premise that a teenage hacker could cause the launch of nuclear missiles, Congress enacted the CFAA, which was then called the “Counterfeit Access Device and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984.”  (For those who doubt that a movie featuring the escapades of Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy spurred the enactment of federal computer crime legislation, see H.R. Rep. No. 98-894, at 6 (1984), reprinted in 1984 U.S.C.C.A.N. 3689, 3695 (“For example, the motion picture ‘War Games’ showed a realistic representation of the automatic dialing and access capabilities of the personal computer.”).)

The Report of the House Committee on the Judiciary summarized the need for the legislation as follows:  “The committee concluded that the law enforcement community, those who own and operate computers, as well as those who may be tempted to commit crimes by unauthorized access to them, require a clearer statement of proscribed activity.”

The goal of articulating a “clearer statement of proscribed activity” has been difficult for Congress to achieve, and, as a result, it has repeatedly amended the CFAA over the years.  The amendments have caused the Act’s reach to broaden substantially, just as the prevalence of computers themselves has increased.  For example, the CFAA initially was a criminal statute only.  In 1994, Congress amended the Act to add a civil cause of action, which is now codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1030(g), under which victims of computer fraud or abuse can assert claims against violators of the statute.  Also, the statute was originally intended to control interstate computer crime only, but, with the development of the Internet, virtually all computer use has become interstate use and thus subject to the Act.

The Act’s Civil Cause of Action

Although the CFAA prohibits seven separate types of activities, airline plaintiffs typically proceed against offenders under Section 1030(a)(4), which prohibits a person from “knowingly and with intent to defraud, access[ing] a protected computer without authorization, or exceed[ing] authorized access, and by means of such conduct further[ing] the intended fraud and obtain[ing] anything of value.”

The Act defines a “protected computer” as a computer “which is used in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce or communication.”  Thus, as noted above, the Act covers, in essence, any computer that is connected to the Internet, which means that it covers virtually all modern computers.  Certainly, any computer that hosts an airline’s website or frequent flyer mileage program constitutes a “protected computer” under the Act.

To prevail on a claim under Section 1030(a)(4), an airline plaintiff must prove that the defendant caused a “loss” to the airline “during any 1-year period . . . aggregating at least $5,000 in value.”  The Act defines the term “loss” as “any reasonable cost to any victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.”  The “cost of responding to an offense” includes the “consequential” costs incurred in investigating an offense and taking remedial measures in response to it.

An airline plaintiff that has sustained a “loss” through violations of the Act is entitled to “maintain a civil action against the violator to obtain compensatory damages and injunctive relief or other equitable relief.”  Actions must be brought within two years of the offensive conduct or the date of the discovery of the actionable damage.

History of Cases Brought by Airlines Under the Act

In court, airlines have had some successes with CFAA causes of action.  Although issues regarding whether defendants have accessed airline computers “without authorization” or have “exceed[ed] authorized access” have been litigated in several cases, the primary battleground has been the issue of whether the airline plaintiff has been able to prove that it sustained a “loss” within the meaning of Section 1030(c)(4)(A)(i)(I).

Southwest’s Cases

Of all airlines, Southwest Airlines has been, by far, the most active in bringing CFAA causes of action in court.  Southwest’s experiences in litigating the “loss” element of the CFAA cause of action in the three cases are instructive.

Southwest v. FareChase.  In 2003, Southwest sued a software company that developed and licensed software that had the ability to send out “a robot, spider, or other automated scraping device” via the Internet to obtain fare, route, and schedule information from southwest.com, as well as a company that was using such software, pursuant to a license, for use by its corporate traveler customers.  Southwest Airlines Co. v. FareChase, Inc., 318 F. Supp. 2d 435, 437 (N.D. Tex. 2004).  In its complaint, Southwest claimed that the defendants’ activities directed at southwest.com were unauthorized and were deceiving Southwest’s customers by providing them with incomplete and inaccurate information.  Southwest alleged 12 causes of action in its complaint, including a CFAA cause of action.

The defendant that had been using the software moved to dismiss, among other things, Southwest’s CFAA claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) because the complaint supposedly had failed to adequately allege “loss” and unauthorized access to southwest.com.  The court rejected both arguments.

As to the “loss” issue, the court held that, because the complaint alleged “loss” aggregating at least $5,000 pursuant to Section 1030(e)(11), Southwest did not need to also allege “damage” to its computer or data pursuant to Section 1030(e)(8), as the defendant had contended.  The court also held that Southwest had adequately alleged unauthorized access under the CFAA because southwest.com’s Use Agreement, which was accessible from all pages on the site, specifically informed users that the use of “automated scraper devices” on the site was prohibited.

Southwest v. BoardFirst.  In 2006, Southwest sued BoardFirst to prevent it from continuing to assist Southwest customers trying to obtain “A” boarding passes, which allow the holder to board flights earlier during the boarding process.  Southwest Airlines Co. v. BoardFirst, L.L.C., 2007 WL 4823761 (N.D. Tex. 2007).  Southwest customers would provide their name, flight confirmation number, and credit card information to BoardFirst.  BoardFirst personnel then would log onto Southwest’s website using the customer’s personal information and attempt to secure an “A” boarding pass.  If BoardFirst obtained an “A” pass, the customer would be charged a fee.

In its complaint, Southwest alleged, among other things, that BoardFirst’s conduct violated the CFAA, and Southwest moved for summary judgment on its claims.  The court held that Southwest was not entitled to summary judgment on its CFAA claim.  The court agreed with Southwest that, by logging on to southwest.com, BoardFirst had been “intentionally access[ing]” Southwest’s computer within the meaning of the CFAA.  However, the court asked the parties to provide additional briefing on the issue of whether BoardFirst had acted “without authorization” or had “exceed[ed] authorized access,” as well as whether the court should apply the “rule of lenity” in interpreting the CFAA in the context of the case.  The rule of lenity “counsels courts to construe ambiguities in a criminal statute, even when applied in a civil setting, in a narrow way.”

The court then addressed whether Southwest had satisfied the CFAA requirement that it show a “loss” of more than $5,000 in a one year period due to BoardFirst’s conduct.  To support its “loss” claim, Southwest had submitted the declaration of its corporate representative on damages, which stated that “Southwest spent at least $6,500 within a single one year period in investigating and responding to BoardFirst’s unauthorized access to Southwest’s computer system.”

The court ruled that, although “investigative and responsive costs fit within the concept of ‘loss’ as used in the CFAA,” the corporate representative’s declaration was “fairly conclusory,” and thus inadequate to establish “loss,” because the declarant had failed “to identify the precise steps taken by Southwest in ‘investigating and responding to’ BoardFirst’s unauthorized access.”  This failure, according to the court, prevented it from being able to determine if Southwest’s response costs were “reasonable,” as required by the Act’s definition of the term “loss.”  However, Southwest did succeed in shutting down BoardFirst’s operations; on the basis of Southwest’s breach of contract claim, the court permanently enjoined BoardFirst from continuing to use southwest.com to obtain boarding passes for its customers.

Southwest v. Harris.  In 2007, Southwest sued eight defendants, alleging that they had engaged in brokering of the airline’s Rapid Rewards frequent flyer plan miles and awards.  In its complaint, Southwest advanced a CFAA cause of action, its only federal cause of action, as well as numerous state statutory and common law causes of action.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, alleging that they had not “accessed” Southwest’s computer system within the meaning of the CFAA.  Southwest focused its opposition solely on the “access” element of the CFAA because that is the only one that the defendants had disputed, but, in deciding the motion, the United States Magistrate Judge decided to analyze all the elements of the CFAA cause of action, including whether Southwest had sustained a “loss” within the meaning of Sections 1030(c)(4)(A)(i)(I) and (e)(11).  Southwest Airlines Co. v. Harris, 2007 WL 3285616 at *3-4 (N.D. Tex. 2007).

In his ruling, the Magistrate Judge noted that, under the Act, Southwest was required to show that it had sustained a “loss aggregating at least $5,000 in value over a one-year period.”  The Magistrate Judge also noted that, under Section 1030(e)(11), the Act defines the term “loss” as “any reasonable cost to any victim, including the cost of responding to an offense, conducting a damage assessment, and restoring the data, program, system, or information to its condition prior to the offense, and any revenue lost, cost incurred, or other consequential damages incurred because of interruption of service.”

In its complaint, Southwest alleged that it had incurred a “loss” within the meaning of the Act because it had lost more than $5,000 in revenue in one year due to numerous passengers having traveled on its flights using awards that were void because defendants had brokered them in violation of the Rapid Rewards program’s terms.  Taking a narrow view of the Act’s definition of “loss,” the Magistrate Judge ruled that the form of loss alleged by Southwest did not fall under the definition set forth in Section 1030(e)(11) because the revenue at issue had not been lost “because of interruption of service.”  Accordingly, the Magistrate Judge recommended that the defendants’ motion to dismiss be granted, and the District Court accepted his recommendation.

The court in Harris is not alone in its view that lost revenue must result from a service interruption in order to constitute a “loss” within the meaning of Section 1030(e)(11).  In fact, this appears to be the majority view on this issue.  See Costar Realty Information, Inc. v. Field, 2010 WL 3369349 at *15 (D. Md. 2010).  However, some courts have ruled that lost revenue does constitute “loss” within the meaning of Section 1030(e)(11) even if it does not result from a service interruption.  See, e.g., Frees, Inc. v. McMillian, 2007 WL 2264457 at *6 (W.D. La. 2007).  This issue was recently addressed in a case brought by Alaska Airlines.

Alaska Airlines v. Carey

Brad Carey is no stranger to lawsuits brought against him by airlines seeking injunctive relief against, and damages arising from, his frequent flyer mileage brokering.  Northwest Airlines sued Carey for mileage brokering in 1991, and, the next year, the court granted the airline a permanent injunction and a stipulated judgment for $200,000.  United Airlines sued Carey for mileage brokering in 1992, and again in 2005 for violation of the permanent injunction entered against him in the first case in 1993.  In its summary judgment memorandum in the case discussed below, Alaska Airlines referred to Carey as “an incorrigible and devious scofflaw.”

In 2007, Alaska Airlines filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Washington against Carey, his wife, and Carey Travel, Inc. seeking damages and injunctive relief related to Carey’s brokering of frequent flyer miles and award tickets.  Like other frequent flyer programs, the terms of Alaska Airlines’s program, which is known as the “Mileage Plan,” prohibit its members from selling, purchasing, or bartering miles or award tickets, and stipulate that miles and award tickets “are void if transferred for cash or other consideration.”

In its amended complaint, Alaska Airlines set forth eight causes of action, but its CFAA cause of action was the only federal statutory cause of action in its pleading and, thus, the sole basis for the court’s subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

According to Alaska Airlines, Carey operated the following scheme in violation of the CFAA.  Carey would solicit Mileage Plan members to sell their miles to him.  He would pay the members a set number of cents per mile, and the members would provide him with their online Mileage Plan username and password.  Carey would then be contacted by persons looking to buy an Alaska Airlines ticket, and he would agree to sell them a ticket.  Carey would then log on to Alaska Airlines’s website using a Mileage Plan member’s username and password and purchase the requested ticket in the name of the buyer.  Carey would then pass the electronic ticket information to the buyer, along with the instruction that, if asked, the buyer should explain that the award ticket was received “free, free, free” as a gift.

In the litigation before the District Court, Alaska Airlines claimed that Carey was violating the CFAA by, “with intent to defraud,” accessing its computer system “without authorization” by using others’ account information without the airline’s permission for the sole purpose of fraudulently causing the airline to issue tickets and provide transportation based on void miles and award tickets.

The District Court agreed with Alaska Airlines that Carey had violated the CFAA, and it entered summary judgment in its favor and a permanent injunction against the defendants.  The Ninth Circuit agreed as well, affirming the District Court’s rulings in all respects.  Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Carey, 2009 WL 3633894 (W.D. Wash. 2009), amended, 2010 WL 2196446 (W.D. Wash. 2010), aff’d, 2010 WL 3677783 (9th Cir. 2010).  However, neither the District Court’s order granting summary judgment, its amended order granting summary judgment, nor the Ninth Circuit’s memorandum opinion affirming the District Court’s decision contains an extensive discussion of the CFAA cause of action.  Only the transcript of the District Court’s oral decision at the hearing on Alaska Airlines’s motion for summary judgment offers insight into either court’s thinking on the CFAA issues.

At the summary judgment hearing, the District Court ruled that Alaska Airlines had proven the elements of its CFAA cause of action.  As to the unauthorized access element, the court held that using a frequent flyer program member’s online username and password, even with the member’s permission, to perpetrate a fraud against the airline constitutes “access[ing] a protected computer without authorization” in violation of the CFAA.  In ruling in this manner, the court rejected Carey’s contention that his access was authorized because the selling Mileage Plan members had given him permission to use their website login information.  The court pointed out that the victim of Carey’s fraud was Alaska Airlines and that the airline owned and operated its site, solely determined authorized access to it, and had not given Carey the authority to use its site to perpetrate a fraud against it.

In addition, the court ruled at the summary judgment hearing that Alaska Airlines had proven the “loss” element of its CFAA cause of action:

The statutory dollar value, the Court is satisfied, is met in aggregating the cost of policing the system in order for Alaska Airlines to maintain the continued integrity and viability of its frequent flyer system.

The fact of damage here is not a close question in my judgment.  Not only do we have the in excess of $5,000 spent by Alaska Airlines to fulfill its business interest in maintaining the integrity of its mileage system, but as in the Texas case of Frequent Flyer Depot v. American Airlines, it is also clear to me that there has been a loss of goodwill.  Any time a valid frequent flyer mile customer does not have a seat available on a plane because of someone who improperly aggregated miles and obtained a travel award in violation of the terms and conditions, that results in a loss of goodwill, a loss of respect and confidence in the system that Alaska Airlines and, I might add, most other carriers have promoted and spent a goodly amount of money in advertising and promoting for their economic advantage.

The District Court was able to conclude that Alaska Airlines had incurred costs in excess of $5,000 in a one-year period responding to Carey’s offenses because the airline had submitted, in support of its summary judgment motion, the declaration of its Director, Customer Loyalty & Marketing Programs, in which he attested that the airline had expended over $5,000 in manpower in a one-year period while “tracking and attempting to curtail Defendants’ abuses of the system.”  The court relied on this declaration in ruling that Alaska Airlines had satisfied the “loss” element of its CFAA cause of action.

CFAA Pointers

The CFAA is a potentially powerful weapon against mileage brokers, “screen scrapers” and others who threaten an airline’s revenues through conduct that involves accessing the airline’s computers.  But, in general, judges appear to be reluctant to award relief under the CFAA because the law is relatively new and it was originally enacted as a criminal statute designed to stop computer hackers, and a mileage broker is very different from a hacker.  This means that, knowingly or unknowingly, judges are likely to apply “the rule of lenity” in analyzing whether an airline has proven the elements of a CFAA claim.  However, if an airline takes the following steps, it can substantially increase the odds of obtaining favorable and relatively quick relief under the CFAA:

  • The frequent flyer program’s rules should contain a term that clearly states that a member is not authorized to allow a third party to use the member’s user identification or password in order to log in to the member’s account to perform any transaction that violates the program’s terms.  This term would make it difficult for a mileage broker to successfully argue, using an agency theory, that he did not violate the CFAA because the member had given him “authorization” to “access” the airline’s computer by using the member’s login information.
  • To combat automated “screen scraper” devices, the terms of use of an airline’s website should specifically prohibit such devices, and the terms of use should be accessible from all pages on the site.  This term would help an airline satisfy the requirement that it show that the CFAA offender had accessed the airline’s computer “without authorization.”
  • An airline should focus on proving its damages as soon as online fraud or abuse is detected.  At the outset in most fraud cases, the plaintiff’s focus is primarily on proving liability, and the computation of damages is often left for discovery or for an expert witness to handle at a later time.  However, to help prosecute a CFAA claim, an airline must prepare to prove its “loss” before the litigation and as soon as the offending conduct is identified.  If the defendant moves to dismiss a CFAA cause of action on the grounds that the airline has failed to properly plead a “loss” (i.e., the defendant makes a “factual attack” on subject matter jurisdiction grounds), the airline will be required to oppose the motion with admissible evidence.  Such evidence must be collected before the case is filed.
  • To ensure that an airline has sufficient evidence of “loss,” as soon as online fraud or abuse is detected, the airline personnel (or outside contractors) investigating and responding to the offending conduct should keep daily logs describing the tasks they have performed and the time spent performing them.  It is critically important that the logs (and the contractor invoices, if any) describe how the tasks performed were in direct response to the CFAA violations.  Otherwise, there is a substantial risk that a court will hold that the airline has failed to prove that the employee time, or other response costs incurred, constitute “reasonable” costs within the meaning of Section 1030(e)(11).
  • In the court complaint, in addition to alleging revenue and goodwill loss due to the defendant’s CFAA offenses, an airline should separately allege that, as “the cost of responding to” such offenses, it has incurred aggregated costs exceeding $5,000 in a one-year period.  “The cost of responding to an offense” is considered “loss” under the CFAA.  Courts have held that employee response time counts toward the $5,000 threshold.  Once the airline has its “foot in the door” as to the CFAA by proving that its response costs exceeded $5,000 in a one-year period, then it can seek to recover revenue under common law fraud and other causes of action that was lost for reasons other than an “interruption of service.”
  • If damages are relatively unimportant, difficult to prove, or likely to be impossible to recover, and an airline’s primary objective is to stop the defendant’s online fraud or abuse, then the airline should consider dismissing its damages request at some point, particularly where a state statute could provide a cause of action for attorneys’ fees and costs.  (In the Carey case, the court awarded Alaska Airlines attorneys’ fees of over $122,000 and litigation expenses of over $4,500 in connection with its successful claim that the defendants had violated the Washington Consumer Protection Act.)  Streamlining the case in this manner would increase the likelihood that an airline would be able to obtain a permanent injunction at the summary judgment stage and end the case without having to engage in potentially costly and time-consuming damages-related discovery.

Airline prevails on summary judgment by proving it took all reasonable measures to avoid delaying passengers

December 2, 2010

Cohen v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 8, 2010).  The plaintiffs had tickets for travel from New York (JFK) to Buenos Aires, Argentina, connecting in Atlanta.  Due to an air traffic control mandate, the flight to Atlanta was delayed, and, as a result, the plaintiffs missed the flight to Buenos Aires.  Delta booked the plaintiffs on a flight to Buenos Aires the next day and provided them with hotel accommodations, meal vouchers and transportation to and from the hotel.

The plaintiffs sued Delta in state court, alleging that the airline had engaged in multiple acts of “willful misconduct” by failing to provide a gate crew in Atlanta quickly enough, failing to hold the Buenos Aires flight for them and failing to rebook them on a later flight to Santiago, Chile.  The plaintiffs demanded damages of $10,000 as compensation for one lost vacation day in Buenos Aires, the “great discomfort” they suffered due to the “low 30’s” temperature in Atlanta and “the great stress and anguish” they suffered from “being told to run for [the Buenos Aires] flight that the Delta representative knew or should have known was a wasted effort.”

Delta removed the case to federal court, and, after discovery, moved for summary judgment, relying primarily on Article 19 of the Montreal Convention.  Article 19 imposes liability (limited by Article 22(1)) on an airline for delay in the carriage of passengers, but it also provides that “the carrier shall not be liable for damage occasioned by delay if it proves that it and its servants and agents took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damage or that it was impossible for it or them to take such measures.”

The court granted Delta’s motion, holding that no reasonable juror could conclude, based on the evidence in the record, that Delta “willfully caused” the delay at issue or that the airline “did not take all measures that could reasonably be necessary to avoid the delay.”  The court reasoned that no reasonable juror could conclude that it was possible for Delta to disobey the ATC mandate, to dispatch a gate crew in Atlanta to handle the plaintiffs’ flight before all the flights that had landed earlier, to delay the departure of the flight to Buenos Aires or to rebook the plaintiffs on the Santiago flight, given the insufficient time available to do so.

Note:  For carriage subject to the Montreal Convention, if an airline cannot prove that it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage caused by the delay or that it was impossible to take such measures, then the passenger can – without having to prove that the airline engaged in “willful misconduct” – recover under Article 19, subject to the liability limit of 4,694 Special Drawing Rights (currently about US$7,200) set forth in Article 22(1).  However, pursuant to Article 22(5), if the passenger can prove that the delay damage resulted from airline conduct “done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result,” the liability limit does not apply.  The term “willful misconduct” does not appear in the Montreal Convention; it does appear (as “wilful misconduct”) in the Warsaw Convention.


Third Circuit affirms dismissal of airline’s declaratory judgment action on forum non conveniens grounds

November 22, 2010

Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Chimet, S.p.A. (3d Cir. (Pa.) Aug. 30, 2010).  Chimet, an Italian company with no U.S. offices, contracted with Delta in 2007 to transport over 100 kilograms of platinum (allegedly worth over US$4 million) from Italy to a consignee in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The platinum was stolen before delivery was made, allegedly in Philadelphia.

Under Article 22(3) of the Montreal Convention, Delta’s liability for the cargo loss would be limited to 19 Special Drawing Rights (currently equivalent to about US$30) per kilogram unless Chimet had declared a higher value.  The parties’ dispute centered on whether Chimet had declared a higher value.  In particular, the parties disagreed about the meaning of the entry “VAL VAL VAL VAL” on the air waybill and about certain other entries on that document and on the delivery receipt.

Delta filed an action in federal court in Pennsylvania seeking a declaratory judgment that its liability was limited pursuant to the Montreal Convention.  Chimet moved to dismiss on forum non conveniens grounds, and the court granted the motion.

On appeal, Delta first argued that the trial court had abused its discretion by failing to give the required “considerable deference” to Delta’s choice of forum.  The appeals court disagreed, holding that the trial court had given such deference by evaluating, and rejecting, Chimet’s arguments that Delta’s choice of forum deserved no deference.

Next, Delta argued that the trial court had abused its discretion in analyzing the Gulf Oil Corp. v. Gilbert forum non conveniens factors.  In Gilbert, a 1947 case, the Supreme Court “provided a list of ‘private interest factors’ affecting the convenience of the litigants, and a list of ‘public interest factors’ affecting the convenience of the forum.”

As to the private interest factors, Delta contended that the dispute over whether Chimet had declared a higher value should be resolved by reference to the air waybill alone, and that consideration of other evidence, all of which (except for the delivery receipt) was located in Italy, was unnecessary.  The appeals court disagreed, holding that the Montreal Convention does not preclude “consideration of extrinsic evidence to determine the terms of the contract of carriage.”  The court further held that Chimet had met its burden of proving that testimony regarding this disputed issue could only be obtained from persons who resided in Italy, who were thus beyond the subpoena power of the U.S. courts.  The court also held that an additional factor supporting Chimet’s argument was its “stated desire” to join certain Italian companies, which could not be joined in any U.S. litigation, as defendants in the case.  Thus, the appeals court concluded that the private interest factors supported dismissal.

The appeals court came to the same conclusion regarding the public interest factors.  It held that the “locus of the allegedly culpable conduct” was Italy, not Pennsylvania, because the parties’ dispute centered on whether Chimet had made a declaration of value when it delivered the cargo to Delta in Italy, and that “the circumstances under which the shipment of cargo was lost in Pennsylvania are not relevant to determining whether Delta’s liability is limited under the Montreal Convention.”


Federal court slices, dices and dismisses ticket-related complaint on subject matter jurisdiction grounds

August 1, 2010

Onyiuke v. Cheap Tickets, Inc. & Virgin Atlantic Airways Limited (D.N.J. Dec. 31, 2009).  In August 2008, the plaintiff purchased a ticket, through CheapTickets.com, for roundtrip travel from Newark Liberty International Airport to Lagos, Nigeria, connecting in Gatwick Airport.  The first segment was to be on a Continental flight in mid-December 2009, and the connecting flight was on Virgin Nigeria Airways.  The ticket cost $1,563.

In early December, CheapTickets notified the plaintiff that Continental had discontinued service between Newark and Gatwick and offered him the choice of a modified flight arrangement or a full refund.  The plaintiff refused to accept either alternative.  Instead, he purchased a replacement ticket through a different online travel agency for $3,163 and, acting pro se, filed a lawsuit in federal court.

In his 85-paragraph, 25-page amended complaint, the plaintiff asserted diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and set forth causes of action for breach of contract and conversion against each defendant.  He demanded damages of approximately $127,000 from each defendant, including “mental agony” damages of $25,000 in connection with his contract claims and punitive damages of $80,000 in connection with his conversion claims.

Each defendant moved to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the amount in controversy did not exceed $75,000 and, in fact, was limited to the refund value of the plaintiff’s ticket.  In addition, Virgin Atlantic moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) on the separate grounds that, except for the refund value of his ticket, the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the Airline Deregulation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1), because they were based on state law and “related to a price, route, or service” of an airline.

The court agreed that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction.  First, the court struck the plaintiff’s $80,000 punitive damages demands, which the plaintiff had requested in connection with his conversion claims, from the amount in controversy.  The court ruled that the plaintiff had failed to allege any facts indicating that either defendant had acted with “actual malice,” which a plaintiff must prove to recover punitive damages for a conversion claim under New Jersey law.  The court also pointed out that any “actual malice” assertion was undercut by the fact that it was Continental, and not either defendant, which had discontinued the Newark to Gatwick service, and by both parties’ offers to refund the ticket price to the plaintiff.

Next, the court struck the plaintiff’s $25,000 “mental agony” damages demands, which the plaintiff had requested in connection his contract claims, from the amount in controversy.  The court ruled that the plaintiff’s alleged “mental anguish arising from the loss of a bargain,” embarrassment from having to borrow money from friends and relatives and stress and inconvenience did not amount to the “severe emotional distress” required under New Jersey law to establish a claim for emotional distress arising from a contract breach.

After striking the plaintiff’s demands for punitive and mental agony damages, the plaintiff’s claims were below the jurisdictional minimum, so the court dismissed the amended complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  Because the court dismissed the amended complaint on this basis, it did not reach Virgin Atlantic’s alternative preemption argument.

Update:  On August 23, 2010, the court denied the plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration.  On September 17, 2010, the plaintiff filed a notice of appeal.


Third Circuit upholds summary judgment for airline in overbooking case

June 6, 2010

Kalick v. Northwest Airlines Corp. (3d Cir. (N.J.) Mar. 29, 2010).  Northwest bumped the customer from a flight from Kansas City to Philadelphia.  The customer responded by filing a lawsuit in federal district court, alleging that Northwest had violated 14 C.F.R. § 250.9 by failing to provide him compensation for the bumping and also asserting state common law breach of contract and fraud claims.  The plaintiff demanded compensatory and punitive damages totaling approximately $163,000.

The Third Circuit upheld the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Northwest on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case.  First, the appeals court held that federal question jurisdiction was lacking because Section 250.9 does not create a private right of action, noting that every other circuit addressing this issue had ruled in the same manner.

Next, the appeals court agreed that diversity jurisdiction was also lacking because the plaintiff had failed to show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he could recover an amount exceeding $75,000 on his contract and fraud claims.  The plaintiff had demanded compensatory damages of $1,433 and punitive damages of $161,600.  The appeals court, assuming that punitive damages were recoverable (the trial court had – correctly – held that punitive damages were preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act), held that the “drastic ratio” between the punitive and compensatory damages demanded by the plaintiff “would almost certainly violate the constitution.”

Finally, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s refusal to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s state law claims, holding that the plaintiff had failed to prove the “exceptional circumstances” necessary for the exercise of such jurisdiction.

Update:  On October 4, 2010, the Supreme Court denied the plaintiff’s certiorari petition.


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.


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