Court rules that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction in case against Spanish airline involving passenger in-flight death

Aikpitanhi v. Iberia Airlines of Spain (E.D. Mich. Mar. 31, 2008).  The plaintiffs’ son died during an Iberia flight from Spain to Nigeria in 2007 while being deported.  The plaintiffs sued Iberia, alleging that Spanish law enforcement agents, by their conduct before and during the flight, caused the death of their son and that airline personnel assisted the agents by covering him with a sack.  The plaintiffs are citizens and residents of Nigeria, as was their son.

Iberia moved to dismiss on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under the Montreal Convention.  Pursuant to Article 33 of the Convention, a plaintiff may bring an action in a U.S. court under the Convention only when the U.S. is (i) “the domicile of the carrier,” (ii) the “principal place of business” of the carrier, (iii) the place where the carrier “has a place of business through which the contract has been made,” (iv) “the place of destination” or (v) the “principal and permanent residence” of a passenger.  (The fifth jurisdictional basis, which does not exist under the Warsaw Convention, is only available in cases involving the death or injury of a passenger.)

The plaintiffs argued that the court had subject matter jurisdiction under the first basis, “the domicile of the carrier,” because Iberia had been incorporated in Florida as a foreign corporation since 1966.  The court disagreed.  Relying on cases decided under the Warsaw Convention, the court held that Iberia’s “domicile” for purposes of the Montreal Convention is Spain, where the company is incorporated and has its headquarters.  The court sided with earlier cases in holding that, under the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions, an airline has only one “domicile.”

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the court had subject matter jurisdiction under the Alien Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1350, holding that because the plaintiffs’ son died during an international flight, the Montreal Convention applied and provided the plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy.

Note:  The plaintiffs did not appeal the court’s ruling, which leads one to wonder whether they refiled this high-profile case in Nigeria or Spain.  If you have information on this matter, please email me at ksn@nankin.com and I will update this post.


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