Appeals court enforces air waybill liability limit in case alleging injury to exotic cat

Lentini v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NY App. Div. 2nd Dept. Mar. 14, 2018).  The plaintiff, a New York resident, had purchased a “Savannah silver spotted kitten” from a Florida kennel for $2,300.  She planned to train “Prince Maddox” to compete in “cat shows where he would have been eligible to win prizes upwards of $1,000.”  The plaintiff, as consignee, executed Delta’s air waybill for the transportation of one “live cat,” with no value declared, from Palm Beach International Airport to LaGuardia Airport.  According to the plaintiff, Prince Maddox was delivered to her at LGA wet and unable to walk, and he was subsequently diagnosed as having a broken hip, which led to veterinary bills exceeding $7,000.

The plaintiff sued Delta, alleging causes of action for negligence/recklessness, trespass to chattels/conversion, bailment and economic damages.  Delta moved for partial summary judgment, requesting that, as a matter of federal common law, any liability it may have be limited to $50 pursuant the air waybill’s conditions of contract.  Delta contended that the liability limit applied even though the plaintiff was the consignee, not the shipper.

The trial court refused to enforce the liability limit and denied Delta’s motion.  The court ruled that the limit was not enforceable because the cargo was not “an inanimate object” and thus should be treated differently from “ordinary bulk objects,” concluding that Delta had a “heightened duty of care” and stating as follows:  “The defendant airline wants it both ways:  We will be paid to take care of your kitten as long as we transport it but we are absolving ourselves from any negligence in doing so.  How convenient.”

Delta appealed.  The Appellate Division reversed the trial court and enforced the $50 liability limit.  The appeals court ruled that the limit was enforceable because reasonable notice of the limit had been provided via the air waybill, as well as a fair opportunity to purchase additional coverage.  The appeals court did not address the trial court’s distinction between live animals and inanimate objects as cargo.  The appeals court also rejected the plaintiff’s attempt to invalidate the liability limit through tort and bailment claims, ruling that the preemption provision of the federal Airline Deregulation Act preempted these extracontractual claims.

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