Airline not liable for downgrading passenger tickets

Sobol v. Continental Airlines (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2006).  Due to overbookings, the airline downgraded some of the first class tickets held by family members to coach class, causing the family to be separated during the international flights at issue.

The family members alleged in their lawsuit that the separation caused them emotional trauma and stress, but no physical injury.  They alleged causes of action for emotional distress, breach of contract, conversion, unjust enrichment and punitive damages, and sought damages totaling over $3 million.

Even though the events at issue took place in 2005, and thus were governed by the Montreal Convention, the court primarily analyzed the issues under the Warsaw Convention.  The court rejected the passengers’ emotional distress claim because the separation of the family did not constitute an “accident” resulting in “bodily injury,” as is required to state a claim under the Warsaw Convention.  The court rejected the passengers’ remaining claims on the grounds that because the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions do not contain a provision dealing directly with the downgrading of a ticket, those claims are preempted.  If a passenger whose travel is subject to the Conventions cannot proceed under the Conventions, he cannot proceed at all.


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