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

March 2, 2016

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.


Court shows the door to passenger’s exit row seating claims

April 3, 2015

Naqvi v. Turkish Airlines, Inc. (D.D.C. Feb. 23, 2015).  While checking in for his Turkish Airlines flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to Istanbul, Turkey, the passenger/plaintiff requested an exit row seat.  According to the plaintiff, airline personnel denied his request but promised him a “leg space seat.”  The plaintiff alleged that, upon boarding the aircraft, he discovered that the exit row seats were occupied by passengers who did not meet the minimum height requirement for such seats and that his assigned seat was not a “leg space seat.”  The plaintiff also alleged that the airline violated several safety requirements, including by not illuminating the seat belt signs before landing.  The plaintiff asserted that the airline’s conduct caused him to suffer “extreme emotional and physical distress.”

In his pro se complaint, the plaintiff advanced causes of action for breach of contract and for discrimination under what the court described as a “kaleidoscope of federal statutes.”  The plaintiff demanded compensatory damages of $250,000 and punitive damages of $150,000.  After removing the case to federal court, Turkish Airlines moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the Montreal Convention preempted its claims and that it failed to state an actionable breach of contract or discrimination claim.

The court granted the motion.  First, the court ruled that the Montreal Convention governed the plaintiff’s claims because they arose from “international carriage” within the meaning of the Convention.  The court then ruled that the Convention preempted the plaintiff’s contract and discrimination causes of action.  According to the court, the result of the preemption was that, unless the plaintiff could “shoehorn his allegations into an actionable claim” under Article 17 of the Convention, which governs compensation “for the type of personal injury alleged” in the case, he could not state any claim whatsoever against the airline.

Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention provides as follows:  “The 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.”  The court ruled that the plaintiff had failed to plead that his injuries had been caused by an “accident,” as is required to state a claim under Article 17.  Citing cases, the court ruled that, because “disputes over airline seat assignments are neither unexpected nor unusual,” the dispute alleged by the plaintiff did not qualify as an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The court also ruled that the plaintiff’s Article 17 claim failed, even assuming the occurrence of an “accident,” because the plaintiff had failed to “allege that an actionable ‘bodily injury’ resulted from defendant’s purported transgressions.”  The plaintiff had asserted that he had suffered “extreme emotional and physical distress,” but, in accordance with the governing caselaw, the court ruled that physical manifestations of mental injuries did not satisfy the Article 17 “bodily injury” requirement.

Note:  The plaintiff has another pro se case against an airline, Naqvi v. Saudi Arabian Airlines, pending in the same court.

Update:  On February 12, 2016, the court in Naqvi v. Saudi Arabian Airlines granted the airline’s motion for summary judgment.

 


Court downgrades passengers’ seating upgrade lawsuit

January 21, 2015

Gulilat v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D. Fla. Oct. 29, 2014).  After boarding their flight from New York to Ghana, the two passenger/plaintiffs made a request to a flight attendant that they be reassigned to “upgraded comfort seats,” according to their amended complaint.  The plaintiffs asserted that Delta employees not only denied their request, but that the employees upgraded white passengers to the “comfort seats,” shouted racial epithets at the plaintiffs as they were escorted off the aircraft by authorities in Ghana and falsely stated to such authorities that the plaintiffs had engaged in unlawful conduct during the flight.

The plaintiffs’ amended complaint sought $1 million in damages under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention.  Article 17(1) provides as follows:  “The 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.”

Delta moved to dismiss, and the court granted Delta’s motion.  The court held that the plaintiffs had failed to plead that their injuries had been caused by an “accident,” as is required to state a claim under Article 17.  Citing numerous cases, the court ruled that, because a dispute related to aircraft seating “is neither unexpected nor unusual,” the dispute alleged by the plaintiffs did not qualify as an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17.

The court also ruled that the plaintiffs’ Article 17 claim failed, even assuming the occurrence of an “accident,” because the seating dispute did not result in any “bodily injury” to either plaintiff.  The plaintiffs asserted that they had suffered emotional distress and anxiety, but, in accordance with the governing caselaw, the court ruled that these physical manifestations of emotional distress did not satisfy the Article 17 “bodily injury” requirement.


Passenger not required to prove violation of regulation in order to establish that “accident” under Montreal Convention occurred

November 13, 2011

Phifer v. Icelandair (9th Cir. (Cal.) Sept. 1, 2011).  While boarding a flight from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Reykjavik, Iceland, the passenger struck her head on an overhead video monitor that was extended in the “down” position.  She sued Icelandair, alleging liability under the Montreal Convention.

Under Article 17(1) of the Convention, “[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.”

The trial court granted the airline’s summary judgment motion on the grounds that the passenger had failed to establish that her injury was caused by an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) because she had failed to prove that the airline had violated any “FAA requirements” by having the video monitor in the down position during boarding.

The Ninth Circuit, in a brief opinion, reversed and remanded the case.  The appeals court held that, although FAA requirements may be relevant to determining whether an “accident” occurred, proving that an airline violated a government regulation is not “a prerequisite to suit under Article 17.”  According to the appeals court, “[t]he Supreme Court has suggested that a per se rule requiring a regulatory violation would be improper.”


Court denies airline’s summary judgment motion in trip and fall case

September 25, 2011

Walsh v. Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V. (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 12, 2011).  The plaintiff tripped over a metal bar and fell in a departure gate seating area while walking to join a line of persons waiting to board a flight from Amsterdam to New York.  The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he sustained a fractured elbow as a result of the fall and that, under the Montreal Convention, KLM is liable for $3 million in damages.

Under Article 17(1) of the Convention, “[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.”  KLM moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff was not injured while “embarking” and that, even if he was, his injury was not caused by an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1).

The court denied KLM’s motion.  The court first ruled that a reasonable jury could conclude the plaintiff was injured while “embarking” because the incident occurred while the airline was “exercising control” over the plaintiff.  The court reasoned that the airline had control over the plaintiff because the trip and fall took place in the departure gate seating area and while the plaintiff was walking to join a line in response to the airline’s boarding announcements.

The court then concluded that a reasonable jury could also find that the plaintiff’s trip and fall was an “accident” under Article 17(1), although it admitted that this was the “more difficult question.”  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.”  The airline contended that the plaintiff’s fall was “his own internal reaction to an inert piece of equipment, installed and operating as intended.”  The court disagreed, ruling that a jury could find that the metal bar was unexpected, and thus “external” to the plaintiff, because the photographs submitted by the plaintiff showed that the bar protruded past the seating area and was similar in color to the floor.


Airline not liable for passenger’s deplaning injury caused by fellow passenger

September 21, 2011

Goodwin v. British Airways Plc (D. Mass. Aug. 8, 2011).  The plaintiff had traveled on a British Airways flight from London to Paris.  She alleged in her complaint that, while deplaning, she lost her balance, one of her feet slid into the opening between the aircraft and the jetway and she fell and fractured her ankle.  In her deposition, the plaintiff testified that her fall had been caused by another passenger bumping into her.  According to the airline’s witnesses, the plaintiff lost her footing and fell on her own.

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment in which they agreed that the Montreal Convention governed the plaintiff’s claim.  Under Article 17(1) of the Convention, “[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.”  Thus, as the court noted, the “threshold inquiry” in a personal injury case governed by the Convention is whether an “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) occurred.

To establish in a U.S. court that an “accident” under Article 17(1) took place, a plaintiff must prove “that (1) an unusual or unexpected event that was external to [the plaintiff] occurred, and (2) this event was a malfunction or abnormality in the aircraft’s operation.”

The airline contended that the first step of the above test had not been satisfied because some bumping and jostling from other passengers is usual and expected while deplaning.  The court disagreed.  Viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiff, the court found that the alleged bump by the other passenger, which the plaintiff described as having “enough force that it knocked me off my balance and I fell,” was more than “run of the mill jostling” and thus was unexpected.

The airline fared better with respect to the second part of the test.  It contended that the plaintiff’s fall had not resulted from the aircraft’s operation because airline personnel had not had any direct involvement in the events leading to the fall.  The court agreed.  Again viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiff, the court found that the plaintiff’s fall had been solely caused by another passenger and that there was no evidence of any “out of the ordinary” conditions during deplaning that could have imposed a duty on airline personnel to intervene.  Accordingly, the court granted the airline’s motion and denied the plaintiff’s motion.

Note:  On September 6, 2011, the plaintiff noted her appeal of the court’s ruling.


Race discrimination claim preempted by Warsaw Convention

March 8, 2011

Sewer v. LIAT (1974) Ltd. (D. Virgin Islands Feb. 16, 2011).  The plaintiff had purchased a ticket for a LIAT flight from the British Virgin Islands to Antigua.  The flight was overbooked, so airline personnel informed the plaintiff that he would have to take a later flight.  Undeterred, the plaintiff (and the other waiting would-be passengers) pushed past the airline’s gate personnel and boarded the aircraft.  Airline personnel asked the plaintiff to leave the aircraft because he did not have a seat, and he did so.  An off-duty police officer arrested and handcuffed the plaintiff, who was briefly detained in an airport holding cell and released without being charged with any crime.

The plaintiff filed suit against the airline, asserting claims of race discrimination, defamation and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, although the plaintiff only pursued the discrimination claim.  The court described the plaintiff as “a black West Indian with dreadlocks in his hair who believes in the underlying tenets of Rastafarianism.”

LIAT moved for summary judgment, and the court granted the motion.  The court agreed with the airline that the plaintiff’s discrimination claim was preempted by the Warsaw Convention, citing King v. American Airlines (written by now-Justice Sotomayor) and several other cases.  The court also held that the plaintiff had no claim under the Warsaw Convention because bumping is a well-established airline industry practice and, thus, is not an “unexpected or unusual event” constituting an “accident” under Article 17.  Finally, the court held that, even if the bumping had constituted an “accident,” the plaintiff’s claim still failed because his injuries, bruised and swollen wrists, were caused by the off-duty police officer in the airport, not by airline personnel on the aircraft.

Note:  Plaintiff filed the case in 2002, and LIAT filed its summary judgment motion in 2009.  Cases seem to move at a leisurely pace in the Virgin Islands, in both federal and state courts.