Passenger’s seating decision dooms her personal injury lawsuit

Zarlin v. Air France (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 6, 2007).  A flight attendant reseated the passenger during an international flight after she complained that the passenger in front of her had deliberately reclined his seat so that it touched her.  Without informing a flight attendant, the passenger returned to her original seat because the alternative seat was too close to a lavatory.  The passenger in front then reclined his seat again, this time “striking and injuring” the plaintiff’s knee.

The passenger sued the airline, seeking damages for “her medical costs, the value lost in a country club membership, and expenses incurred for pool membership and to resurface her tennis court.”  Air France moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the passenger’s injury was not the result of an “accident” with the meaning of Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, arguing that (i) the reclining of the seat was not an “unusual or unexpected” event and thus not an “accident,” and (ii) the passenger’s decision to return to her original seat was the proximate cause of her injury.

The court granted the airline’s motion.  Although the court expressed “serious doubts” that the reclining of the seat was an “accident,” the court ruled that the existence of disputed facts made the granting of summary judgment on this issue improper.  The passenger was not so lucky with the airline’s proximate cause argument.  The court held that the passenger’s decision to return to her seat was the proximate cause of her injury, reasoning that if she had “remained in the new seat she was offered by Defendant’s flight crew, the incident in question could not have taken place.”  The court concluded that because no reasonable jury could find that the airline’s conduct was the proximate cause of the passenger’s injury, the passenger had failed to establish that an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17 had taken place.  Since the Warsaw Convention provided the passenger’s only possible remedy, her claim failed.


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