Airline’s liability limited even for baggage checked against passenger’s will

Booker v. BWIA West Indies Airways Limited (E.D.N.Y. May 8, 2007).  After the passenger had boarded the aircraft for a flight from JFK to Guyana in 2004, the airline required that she check, “against her will,” two bags she was carrying.  When the passenger arrived in Guyana both bags were missing.  The bags did reappear four days later, but, according to the passenger, $5,000 in cash, jewelry worth $6,400 and other items had been stolen from the bags.

In her lawsuit against BWIA, the passenger alleged state law causes of action for stolen and damaged baggage, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, deceptive business practices, conversion and negligence.  BWIA moved for partial summary judgment on the grounds that the passenger’s state law causes of action were preempted by the Montreal Convention, which also limited the airline’s liability.  The passenger argued that the Convention did not apply at all because the airline had engaged in “wilful misconduct” and that even if it did apply, the airline’s wilful misconduct lifted the baggage liability limit set forth in Article 22(2).

The court granted the airline’s motion.  The court ruled that the passenger’s claims were “clearly” within the scope of the Montreal Convention and that the airline’s wilful misconduct, if proved, would only lift the Article 22(2) limit, not cause the entire Convention to become inapplicable.  The court rejected the passenger’s argument that the Article 22(2) limit was inapplicable because airline personnel had stolen the missing items; the court explained that because employee theft is outside the scope of employment such conduct could not remove the limit.  Accordingly, the court ruled that BWIA’s liability for the passenger’s missing property was limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights pursuant to Article 22(2).  (Per the IMF’s site, 1,000 SDRs was equivalent to US$1,513.23 as of May 25, 2007.)  The court also ruled that because the Convention does not allow recovery for emotional injuries, the passenger’s emotional distress claims were preempted.

Note:  If the passenger’s bags did contain cash and other valuable items, airline personnel probably had to pry them out of her hands to check them.  The opinion only states that the bags were checked “against her will.”  Nonetheless, the court did not hesitate to apply the Article 22(2) liability limit.  Thus, this case can be cited for the proposition that even baggage checked over a passenger’s protest is subject to such limit.

Update.  On January 13, 2009, the Second Circuit affirmed the trial court’s judgment via a brief opinion.  One of the appeals court’s rulings was that the airline’s alleged failure to give the passenger notice of the effect of the Montreal Convention’s baggage liability limit did not affect the validity of such limit.

Note:  On June 30, 2009, ICAO adjusted the liability limits set forth in Articles 21 and 22 of the Montreal Convention due to inflation.  Accordingly, effective December 30, 2009, the liability limit set forth in Article 22(2) was increased from 1,000 SDRs to 1,131 SDRs.  See U.S. Department of Transportation, Inflation Adjustments to Liability Limits Governed by the Montreal Convention Effective December 30, 2009, 74 F.R. 59017-18 (Nov. 16, 2009).

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