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.


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.


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.


Court analyzes “accident” location in ruling on passenger remand motion

September 10, 2007

Bunis v. Israir GSA, Inc. and Israir Airlines & Tourism, Ltd. (E.D.N.Y. July 30, 2007).  The passenger arrived at JFK on an international flight and deplaned.  At the arrival gate, the passenger asked an airline employee for a wheelchair.  After waiting 20 minutes, the passenger started walking toward the baggage claim area.  In the international arrivals area, but beyond the arrival gate, the passenger began to have chest pains.  The passenger made it to the baggage claim area, where he asked for medical assistance.  He was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

The passenger filed a state court lawsuit against the airline alleging negligence causes of action.  The airline removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the court had original jurisdiction under the Warsaw Convention.  The passenger moved to remand the case to state court, arguing that the Convention did not apply because he had not been in the process of “disembarking” when he sustained his injuries.  Article 17 of the Convention provides that “[t]he carrier shall be 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.”  If the passenger had been in the process of “disembarking” when the “accident” occurred, Article 17 would apply and the court would have jurisdiction under the Convention.

In analyzing this issue, the court rejected both parties’ contention that the “accident” had occurred in the baggage claim area, i.e., where the passenger had asked for medical assistance.  The court ruled that the accident in this case was the airline’s failure to provide the requested wheelchair, and that this failure had occurred while the passenger was at the arrival gate.  Given the proximity of the arrival gate to the aircraft, the court held that the accident had occurred while the passenger was in the course of disembarking.  Accordingly, the court denied the passenger’s remand motion.


Injured passenger embraces Warsaw Convention then tries, without success, to avoid it

July 21, 2007

Sanchez-Morrabal v. Omni Air Services, Co. (D. Puerto Rico July 6, 2007).  Way back in 2001, the passenger fell off a ramp and injured his leg while boarding an aircraft in Honduras for a flight to Puerto Rico.  In his 2006 lawsuit against the airline, one of the passenger’s causes of action was for relief under the Warsaw Convention.  The airline moved to dismiss on the grounds that the passenger’s lawsuit was barred by Article 29(1) of the Warsaw Convention, which provides that “[t]he right to damages shall be extinguished if an action is not brought within 2 years, reckoned from the date of arrival at the destination, or from the date on which the aircraft ought to have arrived, or from the date on which the transportation stopped.”

Backpedaling furiously, the passenger moved for leave to amend his complaint to drop the Warsaw Convention cause of action.  The court granted the passenger’s motion but the amendment just rearranged a deck chair on the Titanic.  The court held that the Convention applied because both Honduras and the U.S. are signatories to the Convention and because, pursuant to Article 17, the passenger was “in the course of any of the operations of embarking” when the accident occurred.  The passenger argued that the Convention did not apply because he was not provided with a ticket, as required by Article 3, but the court correctly ruled that an airline’s failure to comply with the ticket requirement “does not affect the Convention’s applicability, only the airline’s ability to avail itself of the limits imposed on its potential liability.”  The court dismissed the lawsuit as time-barred pursuant to Article 29.

Note:  Because the two-year limit of Article 29 of the Warsaw Convention is a condition precedent to suit, not a statute of limitation, it is not subject to tolling.  The same is true with the two-year limit of Article 35 of the Montreal Convention, the successor to the Warsaw Convention.


Airline’s summary judgment motion under the Warsaw Convention denied because passenger had not been “embarking”

April 28, 2007

Dick v. American Airlines, Inc. (D. Mass. Mar. 12, 2007).  The international travel itinerary of the plaintiff and her elderly mother, who required wheelchair assistance, included a connecting flight at Miami International Airport.  American provided (through a contractor) a wheelchair escort to assist the plaintiff’s mother in getting from the arrival gate to the departure gate.  The escort directed that they use the escalator because the elevator was out of service.  While riding the escalator, the plaintiff’s mother fell backward and injured the plaintiff.

Over two years after the incident, the plaintiff brought a lawsuit alleging a state law cause of action for negligence against American.  American moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff’s state law cause of action was preempted by the Warsaw Convention and barred by its “two-year statute of limitations.”  (The incident occurred in 2002, which is why American cited the Warsaw Convention, rather than its successor, the Montreal Convention.)

Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention provides the remedy for a passenger’s personal injury, but it only applies when an “accident” took place on the aircraft “or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The court ruled that because the plaintiff “was not sufficiently close in either space or time to the actual physical activity of getting on the aircraft,” she had not been involved in “any of the operations of embarking” when the escalator incident occurred.  Accordingly, the court held that the Convention did not apply and denied American’s motion.

Note:  The court characterized the Warsaw Convention’s requirement that suit be filed within two years as a statute of limitation, but that requirement is really a condition precedent, as the Second Circuit correctly held in Fishman v. Delta Air Lines, Inc.  This is a critical distinction because statutes of limitation are subject to tolling due to infancy and other reasons but conditions precedent are not subject to tolling.  The two-year filing condition precedent is in Article 29 of the Warsaw Convention and in Article 35 of the Montreal Convention.


Airline obtains summary judgment in offended passenger case

April 15, 2007

Maduro v. American Airlines, Inc. (Virgin Islands Super. Feb. 26, 2007).  During a layover in Puerto Rico, the passenger approached American’s ticket counter to verify her connecting flight to the Virgin Islands.  The ticket agent supposedly refused to return the passenger’s ticket and told her “to shut up and take a seat” and that she might not be scheduled to travel on any flight that day.

The passenger sued American, alleging claims under Virgin Island territorial law for negligence, breach of an implied contractual duty to ensure that employees “conduct themselves in a professional manner” and discrimination.  The passenger’s claims seemed to focus solely on her alleged emotional distress from being treated rudely; the opinion does not indicate that the agent’s conduct caused the passenger to miss her flight or suffer any other more tangible injury.  American moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Warsaw Convention preempted the passenger’s territorial law claims, that the Convention bars recovery for claims for purely emotional injuries (which is true) and that the passenger’s territorial law claims failed because she did not allege any physical injury or sufficient abusive conduct.

Article 17 of the Convention provides the remedy for a passenger’s personal injury, but it only applies when an “accident” took place on the aircraft “or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The court ruled that the Convention did not apply because the incident at issue took place at the ticket counter, which was within the terminal and far from her arrival and departure gates, which meant that the passenger was not even close to embarking or disembarking.  But territorial law ended up saving the airline anyway; the court held that the passenger had failed to state sufficient facts to make out claims for negligence, breach of implied contractual duties or discrimination under territorial law.

The Warsaw Convention, not the Montreal Convention, was analyzed in this case because the incident in question took place way back in 1996.  However, the result would have been the same had the Montreal Convention been at issue, as the Article 17 “embarking or disembarking” language is the same in both Conventions.

Note:  Justice appears to move slowly in the territories; eight years elapsed between the time this case was filed and American moved for summary judgment.


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