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.


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.


Court rejects passenger’s “principal and permanent residence” argument in subject matter jurisdiction dispute

February 13, 2014

Razi v. Qatar Airways Q.C.S.C. (S.D. Tex. Feb. 6, 2014).  A passenger traveling on a roundtrip ticket for transportation originating in Pakistan alleged she was burned by a hot beverage served by a flight attendant during a flight from Doha, Qatar, to Houston.  The passenger filed a lawsuit in a Texas state court, which the airline removed to federal court.

Qatar Airways then moved to dismiss on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Montreal Convention.  Pursuant to Article 33 of the Convention, a plaintiff may bring an action for damages in the United States against a carrier only when the United States is (i) “the domicile of the carrier,” (ii) the “principal place of business” of the carrier, (iii) the place where the carrier has a “place of business through which the contract has been made,” (iv) “the place of destination,” or (v) in cases involving the death or injury of a passenger, the “principal and permanent residence” of the passenger at the time of the accident.

The passenger’s only possible shot at defeating the motion was proving that the United States was her “principal and permanent residence,” which the Convention defined as her “one fixed and permanent abode,” at the time of the incident.  She had alleged in her complaint that she resided in Houston, but the court found that, at the time of the incident, she was a citizen of Pakistan, was traveling to the United States under a “Five-Year Multiple-Entry Visa” and had intended to stay in the United States for only three and a half months.  Based on these findings, the court ruled that the passenger’s “one fixed and permanent abode” was Pakistan, not the United States, and granted the airline’s motion.

Note:  Qatar Airways successfully used a similar subject matter jurisdiction argument in a Maryland case (Alemi v. Qatar Airways) in 2012.


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.


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.


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