Court grants summary judgment against “undeserving litigant” in personal injury lawsuit

Agravante v. Japan Airlines International Co., Ltd. (D. Guam July 9, 2007).  The passenger claimed in his lawsuit against JAL that he suffered back injuries as a result of a “standing takeoff” in 2002.  In a standing takeoff, the flight crew taxis the aircraft to the runway, sets the brakes, sets the engines to a predetermined power setting and then releases the brakes.  The aircraft’s computer controls the takeoff roll and acceleration.  A standing takeoff imparts more force on passengers than a manually-controlled takeoff does but is considered routine in the aviation industry.

The airline moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the passenger’s supposed injuries were not caused by an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention and that even if an accident did occur, there is no causal link between such accident and the passenger’s injuries.  Article 17 provides that “[t]he carrier shall be liable for damage sustained in the event of the death or wounding of a passenger or any other bodily injury suffered by a passenger, if the accident which caused the damage so sustained took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”

The court granted the airline’s motion.  The court generously gave the passenger the benefit of the doubt that the standing takeoff was an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17 but held that the passenger’s allegation that the takeoff was the proximate cause of his injuries “cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny.”  The court noted that the passenger’s “own medical evidence” showed that his back problems were the result of a degenerative disease, not the takeoff, that the passenger had not mentioned any injuries in the incident report he submitted to the airline immediately after the flight and that he did not seek medical treatment until two years after the flight.

In closing its opinion, the court stated:  “The Warsaw Convention imposes a form of absolute liability on international air carriers for accidents which cause passenger injuries.  Since liability under the Convention is nearly absolute, courts should be wary of reckless invocation of the Convention by eager but undeserving litigants.  Here is such an instance of an undeserving litigant.”

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