Court downgrades passengers’ seating upgrade lawsuit

January 21, 2015

Gulilat v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D. Fla. Oct. 29, 2014).  After boarding their flight from New York to Ghana, the two passenger/plaintiffs made a request to a flight attendant that they be reassigned to “upgraded comfort seats,” according to their amended complaint.  The plaintiffs asserted that Delta employees not only denied their request, but that the employees upgraded white passengers to the “comfort seats,” shouted racial epithets at the plaintiffs as they were escorted off the aircraft by authorities in Ghana and falsely stated to such authorities that the plaintiffs had engaged in unlawful conduct during the flight.

The plaintiffs’ amended complaint sought $1 million in damages under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention.  Article 17(1) 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.”

Delta moved to dismiss, and the court granted Delta’s motion.  The court held that the plaintiffs had failed to plead that their injuries had been caused by an “accident,” as is required to state a claim under Article 17.  Citing numerous cases, the court ruled that, because a dispute related to aircraft seating “is neither unexpected nor unusual,” the dispute alleged by the plaintiffs did not qualify as an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The court also ruled that the plaintiffs’ Article 17 claim failed, even assuming the occurrence of an “accident,” because the seating dispute did not result in any “bodily injury” to either plaintiff.  The plaintiffs asserted that they had suffered emotional distress and anxiety, but, in accordance with the governing caselaw, the court ruled that these physical manifestations of emotional distress did not satisfy the Article 17 “bodily injury” requirement.


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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.