Airline’s conditions of carriage withstand tropical storm

Chen v. China Eastern Airlines Co., Ltd. (N.Y. City Civ. Nov. 20, 2014).  The passenger/plaintiff bought a six-segment China Eastern ticket from an online travel agent.  After taking the first two flights (New York to Shanghai and Shanghai to Manila), the plaintiff took a side trip in the Philippines on a different airline.  The plaintiff alleged that “an unexpected and strangely behaving tropical storm” prevented him from traveling on the third and fourth flights in the sequence (Manila to Shanghai and Shanghai to Urumqi, China) and that he informed China Eastern that he would be available to travel on the fifth and sixth flights (Urumqi to Shanghai and Shanghai to New York).  The third and fourth flights departed as scheduled.

China Eastern refused to allow the plaintiff to travel on the fifth or sixth flights in the sequence.  The airline relied on the conditions of carriage applicable to the ticket, which required that the flight coupons “be used in sequence as specified on the Ticket” and that the failure to use them in sequence “will result in the refusal of CEAIR to provide carriage.”

The passenger arranged for transportation to New York on a different airline and then brought a lawsuit against China Eastern, alleging breach of contract.  After conducting discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

The court granted the airline’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s motion.  The court ruled that China Eastern’s conditions of carriage had been incorporated in the parties’ contract of carriage by reference because, in accordance with federal regulations, the plaintiff had received notice of such incorporation and the conditions of carriage were available for inspection at the departure airport.  The court also ruled that the conditions of carriage required that the flight coupons be used in sequence and that the plaintiff’s failure to comply with this requirement permitted the airline to refuse him carriage on the remaining flights.  Thus, the court held that the airline had not breached the contract of carriage.

In his motion, the plaintiff, an attorney, advanced several creative arguments.  One argument was that his inability to comply with the flight coupon sequence requirement was excused under the force majeure doctrine.  He contended that his flight to Manila had been canceled due a force majeure event, the tropical storm, and that such event excused his failure to use the coupons in sequence.  China Eastern responded that the force majeure doctrine did not have any logical application to the plaintiff because such doctrine is a defense that is only available to a non-performing party that is alleged to have breached a contract, and that the plaintiff had taken the position that he was the non-breaching party.  The court agreed with the airline.


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