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.

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.

Montreal Convention two-year limitation period not subject to tolling under local law

January 19, 2011

Duay v. Continental Airlines, Inc. (S.D. Tex. Dec. 21, 2010).  After arriving in Texas on a Continental flight from Switzerland, the plaintiff discovered at the baggage claim area that his custom-fitted wheelchair had been damaged.  Continental provided the plaintiff with a replacement wheelchair, which he used for the remainder of his trip in the United States.

In his complaint against Continental, the plaintiff alleged that the replacement wheelchair caused him to sustain a skin irritation injury that ultimately required surgery.  The plaintiff alleged causes of action for negligence, bailment and breach of contract.

Continental moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to perform the condition precedent of filing the lawsuit within the two-year period set forth in Article 35(1) of the Montreal Convention, which provides in part that “[t]he right to damages shall be extinguished if an action is not brought within a period of two years, reckoned from the date of arrival at the destination.”  The plaintiff’s flight had arrived in Texas on December 2, 2007, but he did not file his complaint until December 18, 2009.

In opposition, the plaintiff contended that his claims were not barred because Article 35(2) of the Convention allows tolling in accordance with Texas law, and because that state’s discovery rule functioned to toll the running of the two-year period.  Article 35(2) provides that “[t]he method of calculating that period shall be determined by the law of the court seised of the case.”

The court agreed with Continental.  First, citing numerous Warsaw Convention cases and that treaty’s drafting minutes, the court ruled that subjecting the Article 35(1) two-year period to the “various tolling provisions of the member states” would be contrary to the Montreal Convention’s policy goal of achieving uniformity of the rules governing international air transportation claims.  Second, the court rejected the plaintiff’s tolling argument on the grounds that the Texas discovery rule does not apply where the accrual of a limitation period is “specifically defined by law,” and that Article 35(1) “unequivocally prescribes” the accrual date as the date of the arrival of the flight.  Accordingly, the court granted Continental’s motion to dismiss.

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.

Airline required to disclose passenger contact information, but not employee contact information, in refusal to transport case

December 28, 2008

Nathaniel v. American Airlines (D. Virgin Islands Nov. 20, 2008).  According to the passenger, airline personnel forced her off the aircraft before the domestic flight and refused to transport her because they had determined “she was too fat” and represented a safety “hazard.”  The passenger’s complaint, which set forth causes of action for breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, misrepresentation, negligence and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, alleged that the conduct of the airline personnel caused her to suffer humiliation and medical injuries and that the airline was vicariously liable for such conduct.

During discovery, the passenger moved to compel the airline to disclose (i) the home addresses and telephone numbers of the employees who the airline had identified in its initial disclosures as having information about the events at issue, and (ii) the passenger manifest for the flight.  The magistrate judge denied the motion, and the passenger appealed to the district judge.

The district judge ruled that the airline was not obligated to disclose its employees’ home addresses and telephone numbers because Model Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2 prohibited the passenger’s attorneys from contacting such employees ex parte, as their conduct with respect to the passenger could be imputed to the airline for purposes of determining its liability.  As to the passenger manifest, the court ruled that, despite a federal regulation requiring that airlines keep passenger contact information confidential (14 C.F.R. § 243.9), the airline was required to produce such information subject to a protective confidentiality order.  The court reasoned that other passengers on the aircraft had apparently witnessed the incident at issue and that the passenger had no other means of obtaining their contact information, and the court took note of two other cases in which the courts had held passenger manifests to be discoverable subject to confidentiality orders.


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