Airline obtains summary judgment in offended passenger case

Maduro v. American Airlines, Inc. (Virgin Islands Super. Feb. 26, 2007).  During a layover in Puerto Rico, the passenger approached American’s ticket counter to verify her connecting flight to the Virgin Islands.  The ticket agent supposedly refused to return the passenger’s ticket and told her “to shut up and take a seat” and that she might not be scheduled to travel on any flight that day.

The passenger sued American, alleging claims under Virgin Island territorial law for negligence, breach of an implied contractual duty to ensure that employees “conduct themselves in a professional manner” and discrimination.  The passenger’s claims seemed to focus solely on her alleged emotional distress from being treated rudely; the opinion does not indicate that the agent’s conduct caused the passenger to miss her flight or suffer any other more tangible injury.  American moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Warsaw Convention preempted the passenger’s territorial law claims, that the Convention bars recovery for claims for purely emotional injuries (which is true) and that the passenger’s territorial law claims failed because she did not allege any physical injury or sufficient abusive conduct.

Article 17 of the Convention provides the remedy for a passenger’s personal injury, but it only applies when an “accident” took place on the aircraft “or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The court ruled that the Convention did not apply because the incident at issue took place at the ticket counter, which was within the terminal and far from her arrival and departure gates, which meant that the passenger was not even close to embarking or disembarking.  But territorial law ended up saving the airline anyway; the court held that the passenger had failed to state sufficient facts to make out claims for negligence, breach of implied contractual duties or discrimination under territorial law.

The Warsaw Convention, not the Montreal Convention, was analyzed in this case because the incident in question took place way back in 1996.  However, the result would have been the same had the Montreal Convention been at issue, as the Article 17 “embarking or disembarking” language is the same in both Conventions.

Note:  Justice appears to move slowly in the territories; eight years elapsed between the time this case was filed and American moved for summary judgment.

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