Passenger’s claim based on seating-related injury fails under Montreal Convention

Plonka v. US Airways (E.D. Pa. Oct. 27, 2015).  During a flight from Philadelphia to Germany, the passenger/plaintiff was seated behind a seat under which was affixed a hard plastic box, known as an “IFE box,” that contained wiring for the seatback entertainment system.  The plaintiff alleged in his pro se complaint that, during the takeoff, he sustained an “open wound” when his right leg “bang[ed] against” the box.  The plaintiff sought damages of $125,000 for loss of income and pain and suffering.

After discovery, US Airways moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff lacked an actionable claim under the Montreal Convention, which exclusively governed the plaintiff’s claim, because his injury did not result from an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Convention.  Under that provision, “[t]he 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.”  To establish in a U.S. court that an “accident” under Article 17(1) took place, a plaintiff must prove that the injury was caused by “an unexpected or unusual event” that was “external to the passenger.”

In support of its motion, US Airways contended that it had established beyond dispute that “Airbus, the manufacturer of the aircraft on which Mr. Plonka flew, installed the IFE box in compliance with a design approved by the FAA” and that “[s]eating a passenger near an aircraft component that was installed in compliance with a government-approved design cannot possibly qualify as an unexpected or usual event.”  In opposition, the plaintiff conceded that it was not unusual for a passenger to be seated near an IFE box, but argued that it was his injury from impacting such box that was unusual.

The court sided with US Airways, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled “it is the cause of the injury – rather than the occurrence of the injury – that must satisfy the definition of ‘accident.’ ”  In the court’s view, while the occurrence of the plaintiff’s injury may have been unusual, there was nothing unusual about the cause of the injury, i.e., the plaintiff being seated behind an FAA-approved aircraft component that was not defective in any manner.  Accordingly, the court granted US Airways’s motion.


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