Court declines to dismiss complaint in passenger heart attack case

Watts v. American Airlines, Inc. (S.D. Ind. Oct. 10, 2007).  During a flight from Japan to Chicago in 2005, the passenger had a heart attack and died in a lavatory.  He was discovered by cleaning personnel after the aircraft had landed.

The plaintiff, the passenger’s wife, filed a lawsuit against American.  The airline moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim under the Montreal Convention, which applied to the transportation at issue and thus provided the plaintiff’s exclusive remedy.

Article 17(1) of the Convention governs an airline’s liability for a passenger’s death or bodily injury; it provides as follows:  “The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The U.S. Supreme Court has defined an “accident” as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger,” not “the passenger’s own internal reaction to the usual, normal, and expected operation of the aircraft.”  In its motion, American contended that no “accident” had occurred because the passenger’s heart attack was caused by his own internal condition that was not related to the operation of the aircraft.

The court disagreed.  Taking the plaintiff’s allegations as true, the court reasoned that “American Airlines’ unusual or unexpected failure to recognize and/or respond to [the passenger’s] heart attack, and its failure to conform to industry custom and practices by responding to his medical emergency, could constitute a link in the chain of the events causing the ill-fated ‘accident’ on board [the flight].”  Accordingly, the court denied American’s motion to dismiss.

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