Airline prevails on summary judgment by proving it took all reasonable measures to avoid delaying passengers

December 2, 2010

Cohen v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 8, 2010).  The plaintiffs had tickets for travel from New York (JFK) to Buenos Aires, Argentina, connecting in Atlanta.  Due to an air traffic control mandate, the flight to Atlanta was delayed, and, as a result, the plaintiffs missed the flight to Buenos Aires.  Delta booked the plaintiffs on a flight to Buenos Aires the next day and provided them with hotel accommodations, meal vouchers and transportation to and from the hotel.

The plaintiffs sued Delta in state court, alleging that the airline had engaged in multiple acts of “willful misconduct” by failing to provide a gate crew in Atlanta quickly enough, failing to hold the Buenos Aires flight for them and failing to rebook them on a later flight to Santiago, Chile.  The plaintiffs demanded damages of $10,000 as compensation for one lost vacation day in Buenos Aires, the “great discomfort” they suffered due to the “low 30’s” temperature in Atlanta and “the great stress and anguish” they suffered from “being told to run for [the Buenos Aires] flight that the Delta representative knew or should have known was a wasted effort.”

Delta removed the case to federal court, and, after discovery, moved for summary judgment, relying primarily on Article 19 of the Montreal Convention.  Article 19 imposes liability (limited by Article 22(1)) on an airline for delay in the carriage of passengers, but it also provides that “the carrier shall not be liable for damage occasioned by delay if it proves that it and its servants and agents took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damage or that it was impossible for it or them to take such measures.”

The court granted Delta’s motion, holding that no reasonable juror could conclude, based on the evidence in the record, that Delta “willfully caused” the delay at issue or that the airline “did not take all measures that could reasonably be necessary to avoid the delay.”  The court reasoned that no reasonable juror could conclude that it was possible for Delta to disobey the ATC mandate, to dispatch a gate crew in Atlanta to handle the plaintiffs’ flight before all the flights that had landed earlier, to delay the departure of the flight to Buenos Aires or to rebook the plaintiffs on the Santiago flight, given the insufficient time available to do so.

Note:  For carriage subject to the Montreal Convention, if an airline cannot prove that it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage caused by the delay or that it was impossible to take such measures, then the passenger can – without having to prove that the airline engaged in “willful misconduct” – recover under Article 19, subject to the liability limit of 4,694 Special Drawing Rights (currently about US$7,200) set forth in Article 22(1).  However, pursuant to Article 22(5), if the passenger can prove that the delay damage resulted from airline conduct “done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result,” the liability limit does not apply.  The term “willful misconduct” does not appear in the Montreal Convention; it does appear (as “wilful misconduct”) in the Warsaw Convention.

Airline obtains summary judgment in case involving passenger assault and false arrest claims

November 30, 2010

Ginsberg v. American Airlines (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2010).  The plaintiff was a passenger on an American flight from New York (JFK) to Turks and Caicos.  After visiting the restroom during the flight, the plaintiff moved a food cart out of his way so he could return to his seat.  However, a flight attendant had instructed him to wait for her to move the cart.  The plaintiff and the flight attendant had a confrontation about the cart that involved some physical contact but no injury to the plaintiff.

Upon arrival in Turks and Caicos, the local police boarded the aircraft and asked the plaintiff to accompany them.  The police questioned the plaintiff at their headquarters and then drove him to his hotel.  American refused to transport the plaintiff on the return flight, so he purchased a substitute ticket on a US Airways flight.

The plaintiff sued American in state court, alleging causes of action for assault and battery, false arrest, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress (related to the return flight) and breach of contract (also related to the return flight).  The plaintiff sought actual damages of over $325,000 and punitive damages of $1 million.  American removed the case to federal court and moved for summary judgment, contending that all of the plaintiff’s tort claims were preempted by the Montreal Convention and offering to refund him the value of the return portion of his ticket in satisfaction of his breach of contract claim.

The court held that the plaintiff’s claims for assault and battery, false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress, to the extent they were based on the in-flight events, were preempted by the Montreal Convention.  The court also held that, for the in-flight events, the plaintiff had no claim under Article 17(1) of the Convention, which provides that an airline “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 reasoned that the plaintiff had no claim under Article 17(1) because no “accident” had occurred, as the plaintiff himself was the proximate cause of his confrontation with the flight attendant, and because the plaintiff had not suffered any “bodily injury” as a result of such confrontation.

The court then held that the plaintiff’s false arrest claim, to the extent it was based on the alleged conduct by American personnel at the police headquarters, was not preempted by the Montreal Convention but that it failed nonetheless because the plaintiff had not proffered any evidence of false statements made by such personnel to the police.

Next, the court held that the plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed.  The court concluded that this claim, which was based on American’s refusal to transport the plaintiff on the return flight, was deficient because the plaintiff had failed to proffer evidence that American had engaged in “the requisite outrageous and extreme conduct” or that he had suffered “the requisite severe emotional distress.”

Finally, the court held that the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim was not preempted by the Montreal Convention, but it noted that American had offered to refund the value of the return portion of the plaintiff’s ticket.  The court indicated that American would also be liable to the plaintiff for the “additional cost factor” associated with the substitute US Airways ticket.

Update:  On October 25, 2010, the plaintiff appealed the court’s decision to the Second Circuit.

Court’s narrow view of Montreal Convention preemption results in remand to state court

January 31, 2009

Narkiewicz-Laine v. Scandinavian Airlines Systems (N.D. Ill. Sept. 12, 2008).  In his state court complaint, the passenger claimed that (i) the airline’s delay of a certain international flight in March 2008 caused him to miss his connecting flight, and (ii) the airline refused to refund his ticket for an international flight scheduled for June 2006, even though he had called on the day of departure to advise the airline that he was sick and thus unable to travel that day.

The airline removed the case to federal court, contending that the Montreal Convention provided, in Article 19, the exclusive cause of action for the passenger’s delay claim, thus preempting his state law breach of contract claim for delay and giving the court original jurisdiction over such claim, and that the court had supplemental jurisdiction over the passenger’s state law breach of contract refund claim.  The plaintiff moved to remand the case to state court.

The court sided with the passenger.  Citing a recent Seventh Circuit case, the court held that because the Montreal Convention’s conditions and limits, including Article 19, only operate as affirmative defenses to a passenger’s claims, such provisions do not provide a basis for federal question subject matter jurisdiction.  Accordingly, the court remanded the case to state court.

Note:  In making its ruling, the court acknowledged that in Knowlton v. American Airlines, Inc., which is discussed here, the Maryland federal district court took a much broader view of Montreal Convention preemption.

Passenger unable to break Montreal Convention baggage liability limit

July 27, 2008

Bassam v. American Airlines (5th Cir. (La.) July 14, 2008).  Four months after her international flight, American Airlines delivered the passenger’s missing baggage to her.  The passenger claimed that items were missing from the baggage, and she sued the airline in state court for over $5,000 for the value of the missing items.  The airline removed the case to federal court, where the passenger amended her complaint to add a claim for $15,000 for the “embarrassment and upset of not being able to dress and appear in public as was her prior practice.”

American moved for summary judgment on the grounds that (i) the passenger’s recovery for her baggage loss was limited to 1,000 Special Drawing Rights (approximately $1,540 at that time) under Article 22(2) of the Montreal Convention, and (ii) the passenger could not recover anything for her “embarrassment” claim because damages for emotional distress not caused by a physical injury are not recoverable under the Convention.

As to the liability limit issue, the passenger argued that the limit did not apply under Article 22(5) of the Convention; that provision removes the Article 22(2) limit “if it is proved that the damage resulted from an act or omission of the carrier, its servants or agents, done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result” and “it is also proved that such servant or agent was acting within the scope of its employment.”  The passenger contended that “[t]he four (4) month delay in recovery of the luggage, allowing [her] personal belongings to be ransacked and stolen, compounded with [American’s] refusal to take any meaningful steps to help [her] in an obvious time of need, makes [American’s] actions much more egregious, certainly rising to the level of what any impartial traveler would consider ‘willful misconduct’.”  In essence, the passenger argued that, by themselves, the delay in delivery and the losses she incurred eliminated any need for her to prove that the airline actually engaged in the type of conduct described in Article 22(5) that would result in the lifting of the liability limit set forth in Article 22(2).

The trial court rejected the passenger’s arguments and was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit.  On the liability limit issue, the appeals court held that, to break the limit under Article 22(5), a passenger must prove facts showing that airline personnel either (i) intended to cause damage, or (ii) acted recklessly with the subjective knowledge that damage would probably result from their conduct.  The Fifth Circuit held that the passenger had failed to meet this “heavy” burden by merely resting on the allegations in her pleadings regarding the delay in delivery of her baggage and the losses she incurred.  It also affirmed the trial court’s ruling with respect to the passenger’s emotional distress claim.

Note:  Before the trial court, the passenger had also argued that the Article 22(2) limit did not apply because she had not been notified of the limit before her flight.  She cited Article 3(4), which provides that “[t]he passenger shall be given written notice to the effect that where this Convention is applicable it governs and may limit the liability of carriers in respect of death or injury and for destruction or loss of, or damage to, baggage, and for delay.”  The trial court cited the plain language of Article 3(5) in rejecting her argument; that provision states that “[n]on-compliance with the provisions of the foregoing paragraphs shall not affect the existence or the validity of the contract of carriage, which shall, nonetheless, be subject to the rules of this Convention including those relating to limitation of liability.”  The passenger did not raise this issue on appeal.

Note:  On June 30, 2009, ICAO adjusted the liability limits set forth in Articles 21 and 22 of the Montreal Convention due to inflation.  Accordingly, effective December 30, 2009, the liability limit set forth in Article 22(2) was increased from 1,000 SDRs to 1,131 SDRs.  See U.S. Department of Transportation, Inflation Adjustments to Liability Limits Governed by the Montreal Convention Effective December 30, 2009, 74 F.R. 59017-18 (Nov. 16, 2009).

Fifth Circuit vacates summary judgment against passenger in baggage case

September 30, 2007

Muoneke v. Air France (5th Cir. Tex. Sept. 17, 2007).  The day after her flight from Texas arrived in Nigeria, the passenger went to the airline’s lost baggage office at the airport and claimed that several items were missing from her checked baggage.  The passenger alleged that she submitted a written claim regarding the missing items during her visit to the baggage office, but the airline alleged that it had no record of having received such claim.

The passenger filed a state court lawsuit against the airline, which removed the case to federal court.  The passenger moved that the case be remanded because the amount in controversy did not exceed $75,000.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s denial of the remand motion, holding that because the passenger’s complaint involved the interpretation and application of a treaty – the Warsaw Convention – the trial court had federal question jurisdiction, which has no dollar-amount requirement.

After the trial court denied the passenger’s remand motion, the airline moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the passenger had failed to submit a timely written claim under Article 26 of the Warsaw Convention and the airline’s contract of carriage, both of which required submission of a written claim within seven days of the passenger’s receipt of her baggage.  The Fifth Circuit vacated the trial court’s summary judgment for the airline, holding that the passenger’s submissions in opposition to the airline’s motion were sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether she had submitted a written claim.

Note:  The Warsaw Convention and its successor, the Montreal Convention, impose time limits for submitting written claims for baggage and cargo damage and delay but not for loss.  However, neither Convention prohibits airlines from imposing their own time limits for submitting written loss claims (see, e.g., Khan v. Singapore Airlines, Ltd. (9th Cir. 1997)), and airlines typically impose such limits through their conditions of carriage.  Courts usually regard the delivery of baggage with some items missing, as occurred in the above case, as baggage damage rather than loss for purposes of Article 26.  See Maro Leather Co. v. Aerolineas Argentinas (N.Y.A.D. 1988).

Court analyzes “accident” location in ruling on passenger remand motion

September 10, 2007

Bunis v. Israir GSA, Inc. and Israir Airlines & Tourism, Ltd. (E.D.N.Y. July 30, 2007).  The passenger arrived at JFK on an international flight and deplaned.  At the arrival gate, the passenger asked an airline employee for a wheelchair.  After waiting 20 minutes, the passenger started walking toward the baggage claim area.  In the international arrivals area, but beyond the arrival gate, the passenger began to have chest pains.  The passenger made it to the baggage claim area, where he asked for medical assistance.  He was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

The passenger filed a state court lawsuit against the airline alleging negligence causes of action.  The airline removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the court had original jurisdiction under the Warsaw Convention.  The passenger moved to remand the case to state court, arguing that the Convention did not apply because he had not been in the process of “disembarking” when he sustained his injuries.  Article 17 of the Convention provides that “[t]he carrier shall be liable for damage sustained in the event of the death or wounding of a passenger or any other bodily injury suffered by a passenger, if the accident which caused the damage so sustained took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”  If the passenger had been in the process of “disembarking” when the “accident” occurred, Article 17 would apply and the court would have jurisdiction under the Convention.

In analyzing this issue, the court rejected both parties’ contention that the “accident” had occurred in the baggage claim area, i.e., where the passenger had asked for medical assistance.  The court ruled that the accident in this case was the airline’s failure to provide the requested wheelchair, and that this failure had occurred while the passenger was at the arrival gate.  Given the proximity of the arrival gate to the aircraft, the court held that the accident had occurred while the passenger was in the course of disembarking.  Accordingly, the court denied the passenger’s remand motion.

Montreal Convention eats passenger’s breakfast claim

February 5, 2007

Knowlton v. American Airlines, Inc. (D. Md. Jan. 31, 2007).  The passenger’s ticket for international travel included the notation “breakfast” for one of the flights.  However, during that flight the passenger was told by a flight attendant that the airline had changed its policy and that she had to pay $3.00 if she wished to have breakfast.

The passenger filed a class action in a state court, alleging that the “breakfast” notation had created a contractual obligation that the airline provide her with breakfast at no additional charge and that the airline had breached this obligation.  Asserting federal question removal jurisdiction, the airline removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the passenger’s state law claim arose under, and was completed preempted by, the Montreal Convention, an international treaty.

The passenger moved to remand the case to the state court.  The passenger contended that because her claim was for non-performance of a contractual obligation, it was not covered by the Convention – unlike the three types of claims for which airlines are liable under the Convention (death or bodily injury (Article 17), cargo damage (Article 18) and flight delay (Article 19)) – and thus not preempted by the Convention.

Recognizing that there is a “split of authority” in the courts on this issue, the court ruled that the Convention completely preempts all state law claims arising out of international flights.  The court explained that it had been persuaded to find in favor of complete preemption by the Convention’s emphasis on creating a uniform system of liability, but its concluding statement shows that it had also been influenced by the minimal nature of the alleged breach of contract:  “As a matter of public policy, airlines should not be subject to contract claims in state courts involving a three-dollar breakfast.”

Thus, in this court and in many others, where the Convention applies but does not specifically provide a remedy for the passenger, the passenger cannot look to state law for a remedy.  One can only wonder whether the ruling would have been different if the passenger had been traveling in first class and had been told that she had to pay $50 for her dinner.


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