Montreal Convention’s notice provision spoils shipper’s damaged vegetables claim

January 28, 2016

Mas & Sons Jardiniers, Ltd. v. Florida West International Airways, Inc. (Fla. 3d DCA Oct. 7, 2015).  The shipper/plaintiff alleged that it had sustained damages because Florida West failed to timely release fresh vegetables it had transported by air from Guatemala and Costa Rica to Miami.  Due to logistical problems involving payment for the cargo, its release was delayed.  The plaintiff then had a USDA inspection performed, which showed that the vegetables were “exhibiting signs of early stages of decay.”  As a result, when the drivers of the trucking company hired by the plaintiff picked up the cargo, they signed the air waybills “Receive/Protest.”

The plaintiff alleged that some of the vegetables had to be destroyed and that it had to sell the remainder at a reduced price.  The plaintiff sent the first written notice of its claim to Florida West 28 days after the cargo was released to the trucking company, although the plaintiff had given verbal notice of its claim to the carrier prior to that time.

Florida West moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to comply with Article 31 of the Montreal Convention, which required that the plaintiff submit its damage claim “in writing” within “fourteen days from the date of receipt” of the cargo.  The plaintiff argued that fact issues pertaining to the “Receive/Protest” air waybill notations and its verbal claim notice precluded summary judgment.  The court disagreed.  Consistent with well-established caselaw, the court strictly construed Article 31, ruling that the “Receive/Protest” notations were insufficient because they failed to adequately inform the carrier of the nature of the damage and that timely written notice was required even if the carrier had actual knowledge of the damage.


Passenger’s fear of contagious disease not compensable under Montreal Convention

November 30, 2015

Jane Doe v. Etihad Airways, P.J.S.C. (E.D. Mich. Oct. 13, 2015).  During a flight from Abu Dhabi to Chicago, the passenger/plaintiff was pricked by a discarded syringe when she reached into in a seatback pocket.  The plaintiff sought treatment from her physician, who prescribed antiviral drugs and HIV and hepatitis tests.  The tests, which were administered over the course of a year, showed that the plaintiff had not developed HIV.

The plaintiff sued Etihad under the Montreal Convention.  She alleged that that her injury had caused her emotional distress and mental anguish, primarily in the form of her fear of developing HIV or hepatitis.  Her husband alleged a derivative loss of consortium claim.

Etihad moved for partial summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff’s fear of contagion damages were not recoverable under the Montreal Convention because they did not arise from a “bodily injury” within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Convention.  That provision states 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.”  Etihad cited numerous cases arising under the Montreal Convention, and under its Warsaw Convention predecessor, rejecting passengers’ recovery of emotional distress damages that were not caused by any “bodily injury.”

Etihad argued that the plaintiff’s fear of contagion damages were not caused by the “very minor and brief pain” resulting from the needlestick, i.e., the only “bodily injury” that occurred, but by her “unfounded fear of exposure to a contagious disease.”  Etihad also argued that the plaintiff’s fear of contagion damages were too speculative to be recovered under Michigan law.

The court agreed with Etihad’s Montreal Convention argument and granted the airline’s motion.  The court did not consider Etihad’s Michigan law argument.


Montreal Convention applies, and time-bars, passenger’s claims despite injury’s occurrence during domestic flight

October 11, 2015

Cattaneo v. American Airlines, Inc. (N.D. Cal. Sept. 24, 2015).  The passenger/plaintiff traveled roundtrip on American’s flights between LAX and Cozumel, Mexico, via DFW, in June 2011.  In her complaint filed in November 2014, the plaintiff alleged that, during the DFW-LAX flight, a flight attendant gave her “an unlidded cup of hot water,” which spilled on her lap when the aircraft encountered turbulence, causing injuries.

American moved to dismiss on the ground that the plaintiff’s claims were time-barred by Article 35(1) of the Montreal Convention, which extinguishes the right to damages if an action is not commenced within two years “from the date of arrival at the destination.”  American noted that the Convention applied even though the alleged injury occurred during the domestic DFW-LAX flight because, under Article 1(2), “international carriage” triggering the application of the Convention exists “where or not there be a break in the carriage.”

The plaintiff responded by arguing that the Convention did not apply because the DFW-LAX flight was “completely domestic.”  The court agreed with American, finding that the plaintiff’s itinerary, which included same-day travel from Cozumel to LAX, objectively demonstrated that the DFW-LAX flight was “part of her longer international trip.”  Accordingly, the court granted American’s motion to dismiss.


ATSA immunizes airline and employee from liability to customer who made bomb reference and disparaged TSA

September 30, 2015

Baez v. JetBlue Airways Corporation (2d. Cir. July 16, 2015).  The plaintiff checked baggage for her JetBlue flight from JFK to Austin, Texas.  However, she appeared at the gate late, after the aircraft’s door had been closed, so the gate agent refused to let her board.  The plaintiff admitted that she then made what the Second Circuit described as a “cryptic reference to the possibility of a bomb in her luggage”:  “Isn’t it a security risk to let a bag go on a plane without a passenger, what if there was a bomb in the bag?”  The plaintiff alleged that the agent responded, “TSA agents would know if there was a bomb in the bag,” to which the plaintiff replied, “TSA–my ass,” and walked away.

The gate agent reported the conversation to her supervisor, who alerted the airline’s security personnel and TSA.  JetBlue rerouted the aircraft as a security measure and searched all the checked baggage after it landed.  The plaintiff’s bag did not contain a bomb.  But it did contain marijuana residue.  The plaintiff was charged under 49 U.S.C. § 46507(1) with making a false bomb threat.  The government dropped the charge, and the plaintiff pleaded guilty to charges based on the marijuana residue found in her bag.

The plaintiff sued JetBlue for “a host of claims,” including negligent supervision, retention, training and hiring, defamation, false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  She sued the gate agent as well.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the ground that they were immune from suit under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, 49 U.S.C. § 44941.  Among other things, ATSA immunizes airlines and their employees from any liability for reporting “any suspicious transaction relevant to a possible violation of law or regulation, relating to air piracy, a threat to aircraft or passenger safety, or terrorism” to a law enforcement officer.  Immunity is not provided for reports that are “materially false.”  A report is materially false if an accurate report regarding the “suspicious transaction” at issue would have had a different effect on the mind of a “reasonable security officer,” i.e., if an accurate report would have caused such officer to decide not to investigate the report.

Before the Second Circuit, the plaintiff argued that the district court had erred by deciding whether the gate agent’s statements were materially false at the summary judgment stage, as that issue should been decided by a jury.  The appeals court disagreed and affirmed the district court.  It concluded that the gate agent’s report was not materially false because “a reasonable officer would necessarily have followed up on the statements Baez admitted she made,” i.e., such officer would have investigated the “report of a disgruntled passenger who adverted to a bomb in luggage and deprecated the agency responsible for detecting such bombs.”


Delta obtains $22 million default judgment against operator of travel club scheme

August 20, 2015

Delta Air Lines v. John Wunder, John VanGinhoven et al. (N.D. Ga. May 29, 2015).  In its 84-page, 292-paragraph complaint, Delta alleged that John Wunder, John VanGinhoven and 37 other individual and corporate defendants had violated federal and state trademark and racketeering statutes by using Delta’s name and trademarks, without authorization, on “a massive number” of postcards and letters to carry out a fraudulent scheme to sell “travel club” memberships.  The complaint alleged that the defendants designed the mailings to create the impression that Delta had send them; they bear Delta’s logos and some even appear to have been signed by a high-ranking Delta officer (who in fact is fictitious).

According to the complaint, the mailings gleefully announce that the addressee has won two roundtrip Delta tickets for travel anywhere in the continental United States.  Those who call the listed number are screened by call-center operators; those callers who report a sufficient income are informed they must attend a nearby travel-related sales meeting in order to obtain their Delta tickets.  The meetings, which are typically held in hotel conference rooms, are high-pressure presentations during which the attendees are pushed to buy a travel club membership costing thousands of dollars.  The attendees are promised significant discounts on future travel expenses, but the memberships are in fact worthless.

After obtaining a preliminary injunction against Wunder, VanGinhoven and other defendants, Delta moved for a default judgment and permanent injunction against Wunder and his companies.  According to Delta, Wunder and his companies were involved in “nearly every phase” of the travel club scheme.  The court granted Delta’s motion, awarding it a judgment of over $22 million against Wunder and his companies.  The court’s award consisted of statutory damages under the Lanham Act for use of counterfeit marks, attorneys’ fees under the Lanham Act and the federal and Georgia RICO statutes, trebling of the Lanham Act damages and attorneys’ fees under the RICO statutes and, finally, punitive damages.  The court also entered a permanent injunction prohibiting Wunder and his companies from using the name “Delta” or any Delta trademarks in any printed materials and from representing they have any affiliation with Delta.

In the lawsuit, Delta describes VanGinhoven as an “unapologetic intellectual property pirate” and alleges that he and his company handle the printing and mailing aspects of the travel club scheme.  Delta alleges that, in 2011 and 2012, VanGinhoven and his company printed and mailed 5.5 million travel club promotional items that infringed Delta’s trademarks and that they have also printed and mailed similar promotional items infringing trademarks of Continental, American, Southwest, Orbitz, Travelocity and United.  Delta has moved for partial summary judgment and VanGinhoven has moved for summary judgment; briefing of the motions was completed in July 2015.

Update:  On December 15, 2015, the court issued a 49-page order ruling on Delta’s motion for partial summary judgment and VanGinhoven’s motion for summary judgment.  Among other things, the court (i) granted VanGinhoven’s motion as to Delta’s federal and Georgia RICO claims because Delta had failed to establish a “pattern of racketeering activity,” and (ii) granted Delta’s motion as to its trademark infringement (15 U.S.C. § 1114) and unfair competition (15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)) claims because Delta had established that VanGinhoven’s unauthorized use of its trademarks was likely to cause confusion.


Court shows the door to passenger’s exit row seating claims

April 3, 2015

Naqvi v. Turkish Airlines, Inc. (D.D.C. Feb. 23, 2015).  While checking in for his Turkish Airlines flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, the passenger/plaintiff requested an exit row seat.  According to the plaintiff, airline personnel denied his request but promised him a “leg space seat.”  The plaintiff alleged that, upon boarding the aircraft, he discovered that the exit row seats were occupied by passengers who did not meet the minimum height requirement for such seats and that his assigned seat was not a “leg space seat.”  The plaintiff also alleged that the airline violated several safety requirements, including by not illuminating the seat belt signs before landing.  The plaintiff asserted that the airline’s conduct caused him to suffer “extreme emotional and physical distress.”

In his pro se complaint, the plaintiff advanced causes of action for breach of contract and for discrimination under what the court described as a “kaleidoscope of federal statutes.”  The plaintiff demanded compensatory damages of $250,000 and punitive damages of $150,000.  After removing the case to federal court, Turkish Airlines moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the Montreal Convention preempted its claims and that it failed to state an actionable breach of contract or discrimination claim.

The court granted the motion.  First, the court ruled that the Montreal Convention governed the plaintiff’s claims because they arose from “international carriage” within the meaning of the Convention.  The court then ruled that the Convention preempted the plaintiff’s contract and discrimination causes of action.  According to the court, the result of the preemption was that, unless the plaintiff could “shoehorn his allegations into an actionable claim” under Article 17 of the Convention, which governs compensation “for the type of personal injury alleged” in the case, he could not state any claim whatsoever against the airline.

Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention 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 court ruled that the plaintiff had failed to plead that his injuries had been caused by an “accident,” as is required to state a claim under Article 17.  Citing cases, the court ruled that, because “disputes over airline seat assignments are neither unexpected nor unusual,” the dispute alleged by the plaintiff did not qualify as an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The court also ruled that the plaintiff’s Article 17 claim failed, even assuming the occurrence of an “accident,” because the plaintiff had failed to “allege that an actionable ‘bodily injury’ resulted from defendant’s purported transgressions.”  The plaintiff had asserted that he had suffered “extreme emotional and physical distress,” but, in accordance with the governing caselaw, the court ruled that physical manifestations of mental injuries did not satisfy the Article 17 “bodily injury” requirement.

Note:  The plaintiff has another pro se case against an airline, Naqvi v. Saudi Arabian Airlines, pending in the same court.

 


Airline’s conditions of carriage withstand tropical storm

February 19, 2015

Chen v. China Eastern Airlines Co., Ltd. (N.Y. City Civ. Nov. 20, 2014).  The passenger/plaintiff bought a six-segment China Eastern ticket from an online travel agent.  After taking the first two flights (New York to Shanghai and Shanghai to Manila), the plaintiff took a side trip in the Philippines on a different airline.  The plaintiff alleged that “an unexpected and strangely behaving tropical storm” prevented him from traveling on the third and fourth flights in the sequence (Manila to Shanghai and Shanghai to Urumqi, China) and that he informed China Eastern that he would be available to travel on the fifth and sixth flights (Urumqi to Shanghai and Shanghai to New York).  The third and fourth flights departed as scheduled.

China Eastern refused to allow the plaintiff to travel on the fifth or sixth flights in the sequence.  The airline relied on the conditions of carriage applicable to the ticket, which required that the flight coupons “be used in sequence as specified on the Ticket” and that the failure to use them in sequence “will result in the refusal of CEAIR to provide carriage.”

The passenger arranged for transportation to New York on a different airline and then brought a lawsuit against China Eastern, alleging breach of contract.  After conducting discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The court granted the airline’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s motion.  The court ruled that China Eastern’s conditions of carriage had been incorporated in the parties’ contract of carriage by reference because, in accordance with federal regulations, the plaintiff had received notice of such incorporation and the conditions of carriage were available for inspection at the departure airport.  The court also ruled that the conditions of carriage required that the flight coupons be used in sequence and that the plaintiff’s failure to comply with this requirement permitted the airline to refuse him carriage on the remaining flights.  Thus, the court held that the airline had not breached the contract of carriage.

In his motion, the plaintiff, an attorney, advanced several creative arguments.  One argument was that his inability to comply with the flight coupon sequence requirement was excused under the force majeure doctrine.  He contended that his flight to Manila had been canceled due a force majeure event, the tropical storm, and that such event excused his failure to use the coupons in sequence.  China Eastern responded that the force majeure doctrine did not have any logical application to the plaintiff because such doctrine is a defense that is only available to a non-performing party that is alleged to have breached a contract, and that the plaintiff had taken the position that he was the non-breaching party.  The court agreed with the airline.


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