Court trims passengers’ claims in case alleging hard landing injuries

Callahan v. United Airlines, Inc. (W.D. Okla. Sept. 28, 2017).  In their amended complaint, the passengers/plaintiffs alleged that the hard landing of their flight from Cancun, Mexico, to Houston caused permanent injuries to plaintiff Sylvia Callahan’s spine.  The other plaintiff, Ms. Callahan’s husband, did not allege any physical injuries from the landing.  The plaintiffs advanced causes of action against United for negligence, gross negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract, as well as for liability under the Montreal Convention.  Mr. Callahan also advanced a loss of consortium cause of action.

In its motion to dismiss, United argued that, because Ms. Callahan’s alleged physical injuries occurred while she was on board an aircraft during “international carriage” within the meaning of Article 1(2) of the Montreal Convention, and that Mr. Callahan’s claims were derivative of Ms. Callahan’s, the Convention, pursuant to Article 29, provided the plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy and preempted their state law causes of action.  The plaintiffs did not dispute that the subject flight constituted “international carriage.”

United then argued that neither plaintiff had sufficiently alleged an actionable claim under the Montreal Convention’s Article 17(1), which requires that a plaintiff prove “(1) an accident; (2) that caused death or bodily injury; and (3) that took place on the plane or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  The Supreme Court has defined an “accident” under Article 17(1) as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”

As to Ms. Callahan, United argued that no “accident” had been alleged because “landing gear abruptly striking the runway during the landing of an aircraft is not alone an unusual or unexpected event in the context of commercial air travel.”  As to Mr. Callahan, United argued that no “accident” had been alleged because he had not claimed any bodily injury and that the Montreal Convention does not allow an injured passenger’s spouse to recover for loss of consortium.

Citing the text of Article 29, the court agreed that the Montreal Convention provided the plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy and preempted their state law causes of action.  The court then ruled that, by alleging that the aircraft’s landing gear had “abruptly and unexpectedly” struck the runway with enough force to cause Ms. Callahan to sustain severe spinal injuries, the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged the occurrence of an “accident” under Article 17(1) as to Ms. Callahan.  As to Mr. Callahan, the court ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to allege the occurrence of an “accident,” as they did not allege that he had sustained any bodily injury due to the landing.  Accordingly, the court denied the motion to dismiss as to Ms. Callahan’s Montreal Convention cause of action and dismissed the plaintiffs’ state law causes of action and Mr. Callahan’s cause of action under the Convention.


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