Passengers’ state law seating and routing claims held preempted

Onwuteaka v. Northwest Airlines, Inc. and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (S.D. Tex. May 10, 2007).  The passengers, a family of four, had two grievances concerning their international flight.  First, their request for “adjoining seats” was not honored.  Second, “[f]ive hours into their flight from Amsterdam to Nigeria, the plane was abruptly piloted back to Amsterdam where the Plaintiffs were forced to remain in the airplane for three hours until the plane again departed for Nigeria.”

Based on these allegations, the passengers’ lawsuit advanced causes of action against the airlines for deceptive trade practices, common law fraud, false imprisonment, negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract, “economic and actual damages,” “damages for mental anguish,” “multiple damages” and attorneys’ fees.  In their motion for judgment on the pleadings, the airlines contended that because the passengers’ claims arose during international air carriage, the Montreal Convention governed such claims and preempted the passengers’ causes of action, all of which were based on Texas statutes or common law.

In a brief but forceful opinion, the court agreed with the airlines and granted their motion.  The court noted that the passengers had tried to salvage their case by asserting a claim under Article 19 of the Convention in their (two-page) opposition to the motion.  Article 19 provides that an airline is “liable for damage occasioned by delay in the carriage by air of passengers, baggage or cargo” (but not if it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage or if it was impossible to take such measures).  But the court then shot down the passengers’ delay argument by holding that the type of damages they were claiming – “mental anguish” damages – is not recoverable under Article 19.

Note:  The docket report for this case appears to show an impressive display of docket control by the court.  The report suggests that, two weeks after the airlines filed their answer, the court reviewed the pleadings filed in the case on its own initiative, ordered that the airlines file a motion to dismiss and that the passengers then file an opposition “showing cause why this case should not be dismissed as frivolous.”

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