Passenger’s second visit to Fifth Circuit yields additional baggage damages but no attorneys’ fees

Muoneke v. Compagnie Nationale Air France (5th Cir. Tex. May 12, 2009).  In 2004, the passenger traveled from Texas to Nigeria on Air France’s flights.  During a change of aircraft in Paris, Air France personnel required that the passenger check the baggage she had carried onto the prior flight.  The passenger claimed that when she arrived in Nigeria, cash and a camera were missing from her baggage.

The passenger sued Air France in a Texas state court.  Air France removed the case and successfully moved for summary judgment.   As previously reported, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case in 2007 because a factual issue precluded summary judgment.

On remand, the district court determined that the passenger’s actual loss totaled $1,242 but that the Warsaw Convention limited her recovery to $134.  The passenger then applied for an award of attorneys’ fees and costs but the district court held that fees are not recoverable under the Warsaw Convention.

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit held that because the Montreal Convention had entered into force on November 4, 2003 and the events at issue had taken place in 2004, the Montreal Convention, not the Warsaw Convention, applied to the case.

Next, the appeals court rejected Air France’s argument that it had no liability to the passenger because its contract of carriage disclaimed liability for cash and cameras (and other valuable items) in checked baggage.  The court reasoned that the contract of carriage provision was inconsistent with Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, which subjected the airline to strict liability for baggage loss and damage (up to Article 22(2)’s limit of 1,000 Special Drawing Rights (“SDR”) per passenger).

The Fifth Circuit then held that Air France’s liability was capped at $1,580 under Article 22(2) of the Montreal Convention, which limits an airline’s liability for baggage loss, damage or delay to 1,000 SDRs per passenger (one SDR was equivalent to $1.58 at the time of the district court trial).  The appeals court then reversed the district court’s judgment and entered judgment for the passenger for $1,242, the amount of actual damages that the district court had determined that she had incurred.

Finally, the Fifth Circuit held that the passenger was not entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees but was entitled to recover her costs.  The court reasoned that, although the Montreal Convention does not prohibit the recovery of fees or costs, it does not provide an independent basis on which a court may award such amounts.  As to fees, the court held that they were not recoverable because the passenger had not identified any independent basis, such as a federal or state statute, for a fee award.  As to costs, the court held that they were recoverable under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) and remanded the case to the district court for the sole purpose of calculating such costs (remarking that “[i]t is long past time for this litigation over $1,242.79 to end”).

Note:  The Fifth Circuit’s holding that the airline was liable for the loss of the cash and camera even though its contract of carriage purported to disclaim liability for these items is consistent with the “Guidance on Airline Baggage Liability and Responsibilities of Code-Share Partners Involving International Itineraries” that DOT issued on March 26, 2009.  The Guidance (which the Fifth Circuit did not cite) states as follows:  “Although carriers may wish to have tariff terms that prohibit passengers from including certain items in checked baggage, once a carrier accepts checked baggage, whatever is contained in the checked baggage is protected, subject to the terms of the [Montreal] Convention, up to the limit of 1000 SDRs (Convention, Article 22, para. 2).”  See 74 F.R. 14837-38 (Apr. 1, 2009).  In a ruling issued on November 18, 2010, the Canadian Transportation Agency reached the same conclusion, striking down an airline’s tariff rule, as well as a proposed revised version of such rule, that purported to preclude the airline’s liability for fragile and valuable items in baggage checked in connection with carriage subject to the Montreal Convention.  See Lukács v. WestJet (Decision No. 477-C-A-2010).  On February 1, 2011, the Federal Court of Appeal denied WestJet’s application for leave to appeal the agency’s decision.

Note:  On June 30, 2009, ICAO adjusted the liability limits set forth in Articles 21 and 22 of the Montreal Convention due to inflation.  Accordingly, effective December 30, 2009, the liability limit set forth in Article 22(2) was increased from 1,000 SDRs to 1,131 SDRs.  See U.S. Department of Transportation, Inflation Adjustments to Liability Limits Governed by the Montreal Convention Effective December 30, 2009, 74 F.R. 59017-18 (Nov. 16, 2009).

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