Airline prevails on summary judgment by proving it took all reasonable measures to avoid delaying passengers

Cohen v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 8, 2010).  The plaintiffs had tickets for travel from New York (JFK) to Buenos Aires, Argentina, connecting in Atlanta.  Due to an air traffic control mandate, the flight to Atlanta was delayed, and, as a result, the plaintiffs missed the flight to Buenos Aires.  Delta booked the plaintiffs on a flight to Buenos Aires the next day and provided them with hotel accommodations, meal vouchers and transportation to and from the hotel.

The plaintiffs sued Delta in state court, alleging that the airline had engaged in multiple acts of “willful misconduct” by failing to provide a gate crew in Atlanta quickly enough, failing to hold the Buenos Aires flight for them and failing to rebook them on a later flight to Santiago, Chile.  The plaintiffs demanded damages of $10,000 as compensation for one lost vacation day in Buenos Aires, the “great discomfort” they suffered due to the “low 30’s” temperature in Atlanta and “the great stress and anguish” they suffered from “being told to run for [the Buenos Aires] flight that the Delta representative knew or should have known was a wasted effort.”

Delta removed the case to federal court, and, after discovery, moved for summary judgment, relying primarily on Article 19 of the Montreal Convention.  Article 19 imposes liability (limited by Article 22(1)) on an airline for delay in the carriage of passengers, but it also provides that “the carrier shall not be liable for damage occasioned by delay if it proves that it and its servants and agents took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damage or that it was impossible for it or them to take such measures.”

The court granted Delta’s motion, holding that no reasonable juror could conclude, based on the evidence in the record, that Delta “willfully caused” the delay at issue or that the airline “did not take all measures that could reasonably be necessary to avoid the delay.”  The court reasoned that no reasonable juror could conclude that it was possible for Delta to disobey the ATC mandate, to dispatch a gate crew in Atlanta to handle the plaintiffs’ flight before all the flights that had landed earlier, to delay the departure of the flight to Buenos Aires or to rebook the plaintiffs on the Santiago flight, given the insufficient time available to do so.

Note:  For carriage subject to the Montreal Convention, if an airline cannot prove that it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage caused by the delay or that it was impossible to take such measures, then the passenger can – without having to prove that the airline engaged in “willful misconduct” – recover under Article 19, subject to the liability limit of 4,694 Special Drawing Rights (currently about US$7,200) set forth in Article 22(1).  However, pursuant to Article 22(5), if the passenger can prove that the delay damage resulted from airline conduct “done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result,” the liability limit does not apply.  The term “willful misconduct” does not appear in the Montreal Convention; it does appear (as “wilful misconduct”) in the Warsaw Convention.

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