Montreal Convention Permits Passenger to Recover for Fear of Infection

Plaintiff was on a flight from Abu Dhabi to Chicago.  She placed her hand into the seatback pocket, and was unexpectedly stuck with a hypodermic needle that lay within.

Because the flight was international, the Montreal Convention applied to the passenger’s claim against the airline.  The airline conceded that the needle prick was an “accident” for the purposes of the Convention, and thus the passenger was entitled to compensation.  It also conceded that the passenger was entitled not just to compensation for the bodily injury suffered, but also the emotional distress that resulted from that injury.  But the bodily injury (the needle prick) and the pain from the prick (“ouch”) was nothing compared to the substantial emotional distress the passenger suffered over the course of the next year fearing that she had been infected with various diseases such as HIV.

The airline argued that it need not compensate the passenger for the emotional distress arising from the fear of infection because those fears were not caused by the bodily injury the passenger suffered, but rather by the nature of the instrumentality of the injury – the needle.

The trail judge agreed with the airline and threw out most of the passenger’s claim.  But the court of appeal reversed, ruling that Convention allows a passenger to recover for all the emotional injuries sustained as a result of the bodily injury, including those that flowed from the nature of the instrumentality of the injury.  In a somewhat unusual opinion, the court of appeal drew a number of diagrams to illustrate its point.  But the bottom line was fairly straightforward:

As this diagram makes clear, because an accident onboard Etihad’s aircraft caused Doe to suffer a bodily injury (a fact that Etihad concedes), Doe may therefore recover damages for her mental anguish, regardless of whether that anguish was caused directly by her bodily injury or more generally by the accident that caused the bodily injury.  That is because, either way, Doe’s mental anguish is “damage sustained in case of”—i.e., “in the event of” a compensable bodily injury.

 

  

Passengers Fall Ill on American Airlines Flight 109: Another Fume Event?

American Airlines Flight 109, traveling from London to Los Angeles, was two hours into its flight when passengers and crew members suddenly started fainting or otherwise becoming ill.   The captain turned the Boeing 777 around and landed at Heathrow. American Airlines 777 

According to the Daily Telegraph in Britain, the aircraft likely experienced a problem with the aircraft's pressurization system: 

This would suggest problems with cabin pressure, although normally such problems occur during take-off and landing.

American Airlines added that the aircraft was being inspected by maintenance engineers.

Actually, what happened was likely a “fume event.”  For years, the airline denied fume events existed, but now we know that they do.  And we know that they are dangerous.  In fact, I wrote about a fume event aboard another American Airlines Flight (Flight 49) almost five years ago.  

Here's what happens: airlines pump air into the cabin.  The air is a mix of fresh air and air that has been compressed by the aircraft's engines--known as "bleed air."  But when the air distribution system malfunctions, toxic chemicals found in the aircraft's engine oil can be heated and pumped through the airplane, creating a fume event that makes passengers sick

Sometimes the passengers recover quickly, sometimes the ill effects can linger for years, with victims suffering ongoing tremors, memory loss, and headaches.   

If they are injured, passengers can recover against the responsible airline.  Because American Airlines Flight 109light was international, the Montreal Convention applies.  The Convention requires an airline to offer fair compensation to anyone injured as a result of an "accident."  A fume event would likely qualify as an accident, even though some airlines now contend that fume events are a "normal” part of flight.

The flight attendants, however, can't sue the airlines due to workers' compensation laws. That means their only chance for compensation is a product defect claim against Boeing, the aircraft's manufacturer.  As it turns out, Boeing has known about the risks of fume events in its designs since the 1950’s.

Compensating the Families of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525

 It looks as though the Germanwings first officer intentionally crashed the aircraft, killing all aboard.  Reporters are asking about the airline's obligation to provide the passengers' families monetary compensation.  Here are some answers:

The airline must compensate the families for any "accident."  Because Flight 9525 was angermanwings international flight, all the families' claims are governed by a treaty called the Montreal Convention.  The treaty makes the airline automatically liable to the families for any "accident."  It doesn't matter whether the airline was negligent or did anything wrong.

The crash was the result of an "accident."  Even if, as it appears, the first officer intentionally crashed the plane, it was still an "accident."  Most courts define "accident" for the purposes of the Montreal Convention to be any "unexpected or unusual event or happening that was external to the passenger."  The pilot's decision to crash the plane would certainly qualify.

The Montreal Convention's limits of liability will not apply.  An airline can avoid paying to the families of those lost in an accident any amount over 113,100 Special Drawing Rights (a sum equal to about US$160,000) if it can prove that it was in no way at fault for the crash.  Generally, it's very difficult for an airline to make that showing.  It's the problem of proving a negative.  In this case, of course, it will be impossible for the airline to prove it was completely free of fault.  So the Convention will impose no limit on the airline's obligation to compensate the families for their loss.

The Airline is off the hook for punitive damages.  Though the airline will have to compensate the families for their losses, even if it turns out that the airline knew or should have known that the first officer presented a danger, the Montreal Convention prohibits a court from awarding punitive damages, or money designed to punish the airline rather than compensate the families.

The amounts that the families will receive depends upon where they sue.  The Montreal Convention leaves it to the courts of the country in which the passenger sues to decide how much money is appropriate compensation for the loss of a loved one.   Every country is different.  In the United States, certain families of those lost could expect payouts to exceed $10 million, depending on the circumstances.  In France and Germany, the payouts would be much, much lower.

Few passengers, if any, will be able to sue in the US.  The Montreal Convention allows families to sue in the United States only in certain limited circumstances.  For example, a family might be able to sue in the US if the passenger happened to purchase his tickets in the US, or if he was planning to continue on after landing to a destination in the United States, or perhaps if the passenger was US resident.

US Airways Flight 735: Airline's Obligation to Compensate Injured Passengers

US Airways Flight 735 from Philadelphia to Orlando encountered turbulence as it passed through 17,000 feet. Three passengers and two flight attendants were injured so badly that they were hospitalized when the plane returned for landing in Philadelphia.

What is the Airline's obligation to compensate the injured?  The answer varies.

Passengers who were traveling on Flight 735 as part of an international flight:

If a passenger originated outside the US, or was ticketed to continue on from Orlando to a foreign destination, the Montreal Convention applies to that particular passenger’s claim. The Montreal Convention makes the airline liable for any injuries suffered on board the aircraft due to an "accident." The definition of "accident" includes an encounter with severe turbulence. The passenger need not prove that the airline was at fault for the accident. Under the Convention, the airline is automatically liable.

As discussed here, the Convention also entitles the passengers who suffered a physical injury to be compensated for the emotional distress they suffered as well.

Passengers who were traveling domestically:

To obtain compensation for his injuries, the domestic passenger needs to prove that his injuries were due to the airline's negligence.  For example, the domestic passengers might need to prove that the flight crew could have reasonably avoided the turbulence but didn't.  That will be difficult -- apparently nothing more than light turbulence was reported in the area.

Cabin Crew:

The injured cabin crew cannot sue their employer due to workers compensation laws. They may be able to proceed against others responsible for the encounter, such as the weather reporting agency used by the airline.  In appropriate circumstances, the crew members can also sue the United States government if Air Traffic Control should have advised the flight of the upcoming turbulence.  Again, however, reports are that there is no reason to believe the turbulence could have been foreseen.

Montreal Convention's Time Limit for Bringing Suit Leads to Unjust Result

A passenger suffered from lung disease.  The airline denied him the use of his supplemental oxygen.  As a result, six months later, the passenger died. 

The family sued the airline within two years of the passenger’s death.  Normally, that’s within the statute of limitations.  But because the flight was an international flight, the Montreal Convention applied.  And the Montreal Convention requires suits to be brought within two years of the aircraft’s arrival at the destination, not two years from the injury or death.  Because the family’s claim was filed two years and three months after the plane landed, the trial court dismissed the suit as being brought too late.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. 

The Convention is rooted in a one-sided deal struck many years ago to protect a fledgling aviation industry.  From the Convention’s venue restrictions, to its limitation on recovery for emotional distress, the Convention leads to results that offend any sense of basic justice or fair play.  

The Convention’s time limit for bringing suit is just one more unfair provision.  Let’s say that a passenger is badly injured in an accident and dies from complications three years later.  It would have been impossible for the passenger’s family to bring a lawsuit within two years from the aircraft’s arrival, because the family’s claim would not have accrued by then.  In that situation, even though the airline caused the death, the family would have no recourse at all.

One justice, Justice Pregerson, dissented noting the Convention was unjust.

Because of the unfair and unconscionable result in this case and perhaps others, I hope that the Montreal Convention will be revisited and revised to protect families like the Narayanans.

That won’t happen any time soon.  Even if there was widespread international support for amending the Convention – and there isn’t – the process would take many, many years.   

The case is Narayanan v. British Airways.   

Malaysia Airlines Must Compensate Families Regardless of Whether Flight 370 was Diverted by Crew or Hijacked

Someone changed the course of Flight MH370 and turned off the aircraft’s transponder.  Turning off an aircraft’s transponder makes it more difficult for the plane to be tracked by radar.  A hijacker with even minimal flight training would have known that. 

But there is one wrinkle.  The transponder was reportedly turned off when air traffic control was in the process of a “handoff” from Malaysian Air Traffic Control to Ho Chi Minh City Control in Vietnam.  At that moment, the aircraft was in the shadows: on the outskirts of Malaysian radar coverage and just entering Vietnam radar coverage.  The crew had said goodbye to Malaysian air traffic control, but hadn’t yet established contact with Ho Chi Minh City Control.  If a crew wanted to disappear, that would be an ideal time to pull it off.  Only the most sophisticated hijacker would know that.

Airline’s Obligation to Compensate Family Members

An airline’s obligation to compensate the families of those lost in the crash of an international airliner is governed by an international treaty known as the Montreal Convention.  The Montreal Convention requires the airline to compensate the families of those lost whenever the crash was the result of an “accident.” An “accident”  is defined as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”  Whether the crash was caused by a pilot’s wilful misconduct, a hijacking, or even a terrorist attack -- it doesn’t matter.  The crash counts as an accident and the airline is liable.   

Cap on Airline Liability

An airline is strictly liable for a family's loss up to 113,100 “Special Drawing Rights,” an amount equal to about $175,000. The airline can avoid liability for sums exceeding that amount only if it can prove it was totally “free from fault.” That is usually an impossible task for an airline, even if the crash was caused by a terrorist.  The air carrier can seldom show that there was nothing it could have done to avoid the accident.  It’s the problem of proving a negative.  Thus, if in fact flight 370 was lost in a crash, it’s unlikely the Convention’s “cap” on liability will come into play. 

More in my interview appearing in the Malaysian press

Plaintiff Magazine Article on Asiana Flight 214

The September issue of Plaintiff Magazine featured our article on the Montreal Convention as it applies to the crash of Asiana Flight 214.   As far as we know, it's the most comprehensive legal article that has been published on the crash to date. 

Asiana Flight 214 and the Montreal Convention

Asiana 214 Passengers' Right to Compensation for Emotional Distress Limited by Montreal Convention

Asiana Flight 214’s crash landing and the events that followed were traumatic experiences for all aboard.  Even some of those who suffered no physical injury will struggle with emotional injuries for months if not years to come. 

Normally, a passenger would be entitled to compensation for all the emotional distress suffered, regardless of whether the passenger was physically injured.  But under the Montreal Convention,Asiana Flight 214 Cabin Asiana is not liable for a passenger’s emotional distress, regardless of how severe, unless the passenger has also sustained a physical injury.  Thus, those passengers who managed to evacuate without being physically injured will likely be left with no rights against Asiana at all. 

What if, in addition to severe emotional distress, a passenger sustained a relatively minor injury, such as a cut on a leg or a twisted ankle? Can that passenger recover for her emotional distress then?

Most courts say no.  

Jack v. Trans World Airlines, involved TWA Flight 843.  The aircraft was headed to SFO from JFK, but aborted its takeoff and crashed. Fire destroyed the plane but everyone survived.  Many passengers had minor physical injuries.  The federal court in California ruled that passengers could recover damages for the emotional distress stemming from their physical injuries, but not the emotional distress caused by the experience of crashing.  

The emotional distress recoverable is limited to the distress about the physical impact or manifestation, i.e., the bodily injury. Recovery is not allowed for the distress about the accident itself.” 

Not All Asiana Airlines 214 Claims Governed By Montreal Convention

As described here, passenger claims against Asiana Airlines are limited by the Montreal Convention.  But any claims the victims’ may have against a manufacturer of the aircraft or its component parts are not.  

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman reported that evacuation slides opened inside the passenger cabin. The slides are, of course, designed to open outside the cabin.  Passengers (or crew) who were injured by the slides may be entitled to compensation for those injuries from the appropriate manufacturers, if it is proven that the slides malfunctioned because of a defect rather than an error on the part of the flight crew.  Those sorts of claims would be governed by U.S. product liability law, not by the Montreal Convention.  

Suing United Airlines for the Crash of Asiana Flight 214

Because Asiana Flight 214 was international, lawsuits against the responsible airline are governed by the Montreal Convention. The Montreal Convention strictly limits where a passenger may bring suit. To bring suit against an airline in a U.S. court, the injured passenger must be a U.S. resident, the passenger’s ticket must have been issued in the US, or the trip must have had a final destination in the US. As discussed here, that means that many of the tourists who were victims of Flight 214 may not qualify to sue Asiana in the US.

The Montreal Convention also permits victims to sue the responsible airline in the country in which the airline’s principal place of business is located. In this case, that doesn’t help the victims because Asiana Airlines' principal place of business is in Korea.

But some foreign passengers may have purchased their tickets through Asiana’s code-share partner, United Airlines. The Montreal Convention allows a passenger to sue not just the “actual carrier” (Asiana), but also the “contracting” carrier (the code share partner who issued the ticket). For some passengers, the "contracting carrier" may have been United Airlines.  United Airlines' place of business is in the U.S. That means that passengers who purchased a ticket from United may sue in the U.S. regardless of whether they qualify to sue Asiana here.

Suing Asiana Airlines in the United States

Other countries severely limit the compensation that may be awarded in lawsuits arising from airline accidents. For example, many other countries do not allow families to be compensated for loss of a loved one's "care, comfort, and society."  Or for "pain and suffering."  That's why in almost all situations the best venue for an Asiana Airlines Flight 214 victim to seek compensation will be the United States. 

US Courtroom

But any suit against the Asiana Airlines (as opposed to some other party who may have contributed to the crash) will be governed by the Montreal Convention. The Montreal Convention allows passengers or their family to sue Asiana Airlines in the United States if, and only if:

  1. The passenger's ticket was issued in the United States;
  2. The passenger's journey was a round trip that started in the United States or was a one-way trip that ended in the United States; or
  3. The United States was the passenger's "principal and permanent residence."

Unless the passenger can satisfy one of these three requirements, he cannot sue Asiana Airlines in the United States.

 

Montreal Convention Governs Asiana Airlines' Obligation to Compensate the Passengers of Flight 214

Asiana Airlines Flight 214 was an international flight between Seoul and San Francisco.  That means the airline's obligation to compensate its passengers for their injuries is governed by an international treaty known as the Montreal Convention. Here are some of the Convention's important points, as they apply to Flight 214:

  • The Airline must compensate its injured passengers as long as the crash was caused by an "accident." The Convention defines "accident" to include any unexpected event; from an encounter with bad weather, to poor planning on the part of the pilot, to mechanical failure. This crash certainly qualifies as an "accident."  The exact cause of the accident doesn't matter. The passenger does not need to prove that the airline was negligent, or that the airline did anything wrong at all. The airline is automatically required to compensate any injured passenger.
  • A passenger who was physically injured is entitled to compensation for his or her emotional distress as well as for the physical injuries. However, a passenger who was not physically injured is not entitled to compensation for emotional distress, no matter how severe the emotional distress may be.
  • The cap on an Airlines' automatic liability under the Montreal Convention is US$170,000. Asiana Airlines may avoid liability for amounts exceeding US$170,000 only if it proves that it was not in any way "negligent or at fault."  In this case, it appears that it will be impossible for Asiana to make such a showing. Therefore, there will be no artificial "cap" on Asiana Airline's obligation to compensate the passengers who were physically injured in the accident

Passenger Burned by Hot Coffee Sues Continental

A flight attendant placed a cup of hot coffee on passenger Lourdes Cervantes' tray table.  Then the passenger in the row ahead of her reclined.  That caused the coffee to spill on Cervantes lap. Cervantes suffered second degree burns.  She sued Continental

Does she have a case? 

Domestic travelers can hold the airline liable only if their injuries are caused by the Continental Coffee Suitairline's negligence.  In other words, the airline is not responsible unless it was careless.  So if Cervantes was on a domestic flight, it's hard to see how she could win.

But Cervantes was flying on a flight from Madrid, Spain, to Newark, New Jersey.  Because she was traveling internationally,  the Montreal Convention applies. Under the Convention, whether the airline was negligent is for the most part irrelevant.  All that matters is whether the passenger was injured by an "accident."

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “accident” to mean “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”  Does Cervantes' situation meet the definition? Yes, according to a California federal court that ruled on a nearly identical case involving hot tea rather than hot coffee: 

The slide of the tea off of the tray table was unusual and unexpected. Although it may be common for an airline seat to shake when its occupant moves around, it is not common for beverages placed on the tray table behind that seat to be so jolted by the movement that they fall onto another passenger. It is the failure of the tray table to hold beverages securely despite passenger movement in the seat in front that is unexpected.

Looks like Cervantes' case is a winner.

Montreal Convention Does Not Apply To Crew Members

The Montreal Convention requires airlines to compensate international travelers who are injured as a result of an “accident.”  If the passenger is killed, the Montreal Convention requires the airline to compensate the family members. But the Convention considers neither an airliner's pilots nor its flight attendants to be “passengers.”  Thus, crew members' claims (or the claims of their familiesCrew Cap in the event of a fatal accident), are usually governed by by local law, not the Convention. In the US, that means that any lawsuit the crew member might bring against the airline would likely be barred by the applicable workers compensation statutes, which typically prevent any employee from suing his or her employer for work-related injuries.

Of course, crew members or their families are free to pursue claims against those other than the airline who might be responsible for an accident. Often that’s an aviation manufacturer. But unlike passengers, crew members generally cannot sue the airline.

There is one exception. A crew member may be considered a “passenger” if she was “deadheading.” That is, if the crew member was off-duty, but the airline had her on the aircraft simply to transport her from Point A to Point B, then the Convention would apply to her claims.

An Airline's Liability for In-flight Injuries to International Travelers

Domestic travelers can hold the airline liable only if their injuries are caused by the airline’s negligence. But if the passenger is traveling internationally, then treaties called the Montreal and Warsaw Conventions apply. Under the Conventions, whether the airline was negligent is for the most part irrelevant. An airline is responsible only if the passenger’s injury was caused by an “accident.” So, for an international traveler, the key question is what, exactly, qualifies as an “accident.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “accident” to mean “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.” Certainly, an aircraft running off the end of the runway would qualify as an accident. But there are plenty of injury-producing events which present more difficult questions.

Here’s what the courts have said:

  • Accident: A passenger is injured when a fellow passenger opens an overhead bin and liquor bottles fall out.
  • Not an Accident: A passenger slips and falls on plastic bag left in aisle (reasoning: after long flight, it would not be “unusual” to encounter trash in the aisle).
  • Accident: A passenger burned by tea when tea spilled from tray table because the passenger seated directly in front of the injured passenger caused a “jolt” that upset the tray table.
  • Not an Accident: A passenger falls while trying to walk up a broken escalator.
  • Accident: A passenger seated near the smoking section asks to be moved, the flight attendant refuses, the passenger has an asthma attack and dies.
  • Not an Accident: A passenger dies from an airline-induced blood clot.
  • Not an Accident: One passenger falls on and breaks the arm of another passenger (reasoning: the passenger decision to try to climb over his fellow passenger not related to the aircraft’s operation.)

More at Chris Cotter’s excellent article: Recent Case Law Addressing Three Contentious Issues in the Montreal Convention.

Airline's Liability for Injuries Caused by Falling Baggage

It's the passenger in the aisle seat who is most often injured by baggage falling from an overhead bin. The injuries can be serious and can include mild traumatic brain injury.Overhead bin

If the baggage falls and injures a passenger who is travelling internationally, then the Montreal Convention or Warsaw Conventions apply.  The conventions are international treaties that make the airlines automatically liable for any injury to the passenger that resulted from an "accident."  An "accident" is defined as an unusual or unexpected event that is external to the passenger.  Under certain circumstances, being injured by falling baggage may well qualify. 

The conventions apply even if the flight was entirely domestic, as long as the passenger had an international destination somewhere on his itinerary.

What if the flight on which the injury occurred was domestic and there was no international travel involved?  Then it's trickier.  The passenger must prove that the airline was negligent before the airline can be held liable.  For example, the passenger must prove that a flight attendant was careless in opening a baggage compartment and allowing the object to fall out.  Or, the passenger must prove that the bag fell out when a fellow passenger opened the compartment because a flight attendant stowed the bag improperly.

United Flight 935: Airline's Obligation to Compensate Passengers Injured by Turbulence

At least 10 people aboard United Flight 935 were hurt when the aircraft encountered severe turbulence.  Is the airline responsible for compensating its injured passengers?

Continental 767 CabinBecause Flight 935 was an international flight, a treaty known as the Montreal Convention governs the passengers' claims.  The Montreal Convention makes the airline liable for any injuries suffered on board the aircraft due to an "accident."  The definition of "accident" includes an encounter with severe turbulence.  The passenger need not prove that the airline was at fault for the accident.  Under the Convention, the airline is automatically liable.

Some courts have ruled that while an airline is automatically liable for any "accident" on an international flight, its obligation to compensate an injured passenger may be reduced if the passenger himself contributed to his injury.  One issue that typically arises in turbulence cases is whether the injured passenger should have been wearing his seat belt.  In this case, it appears the seat belt sign was off and the turbulence competely unexpected, so that should not be an issue.

As discussed here, the Convention entitles the passengers to be compensated for the emotional distress they have suffered, but only if they also suffered some sort of physical injury as well.

Finally, as discussed here, the passengers are entitled to sue the airline for compensation in the United States, and in particular in California (Los Angeles or San Francisco), regardless of their citizenship or final destination. 

American Airlines Flight 49: Fume Events are Real

A cabin suddenly fills with fumes.  Passengers get ill.  The fumes eventually clear.  But for some, the symptoms persist long after the flight is over.  Others will first develop symptoms weeks or months later, and may not even relate their symptoms to their flight.  These passengers are all the victims of what has become known as a "fume event."

Here's what happens: Airlines pump air into the cabin.  The air is a mix of fresh air and air that has been compressed by the aircraft's engines--known as "bleed air."  But when the air distribution system malfunctions, toxic chemicals found in the aircraft's engine oil can be heated and pumped through the airplane, creating a fume event. Bleed Air Schematic According to the Wall Street Journal:

Airline companies and jet manufacturers say that fume events are rare, and that when they do occur, air quality still exceeds safety standards. But unions representing pilots and flight attendants say the chemicals entering the aircraft cabin can endanger the health of flight crews and passengers.

For years, the airlines denied that fume events occurred at all  Then, the airlines admitted the events occurred, but denied that they were dangerous.  But fume events appear to be happening with more and more frequency, and the airlines seem to be more willing to admit that there is a danger to the flying public.  Regardless, in March the US Senate approved a measure that would require the FAA to study cabin air quality generally and fume events in particular.

The increased focus on fume events is for the most part due to injuries that American Airlines flight attendant Terry Williams suffered in April 2007.  She recently filed a lawsuit against Boeing, the manufacturer of the aircraft on which she was flying.  Williams is represented by Alisa Brodkowitz, a prominent aviation lawyer in Seattle, who is perhaps the nation's leading expert on fume events.

What about the passengers of American Airlines Flight 49, who were involved in a fume event today while travelling from Paris to Dallas-Forth Worth? 

Because the flight was international, the Montreal Convention applies.  The Convention requires the airlines to offer fair compensation to anyone injured as a result of an "accident."  An accident is an "unexpected or unusual event or happening" on board the aircraft that is "external to the passenger."  A fume event would likely qualify (though some airlines contend that fume events are "normal".)

The flight attendants will have a tougher go of obtaining compensation for any long lasting injuries they might have suffered.  They can't sue the airlines due to workers' compensation laws.  That means their only claim is a product defect claim against Boeing, the aircraft's manufacturer.

Suing the Foreign Air Carrier in the United States

Other countries severely limit compensation that may be awarded in wrongful death lawsuits arising from airline accidents.  For example, many other countries do not allow families to be compensated for loss of a loved one's "care, comfort, or society."  As a result, in almost all situations, the best venue for a family's lawsuit against an airline is the United States.International Flags

If the airline passenger's trip included an international stop, then the proper venue for any lawsuit against the airline is controlled entirely by international treaties known as the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions.  The Warsaw Convention permits the passenger (or the passenger's family) to sue the airline in the United States, even though the accident happened on foreign soil, if and only if:

  1. The passenger's ticket was issued in the United States;
  2. The passenger's journey was a round trip that started in the United States or was a one-way trip that ended in the United States; 
  3. The airline is incorporated in the United States; or
  4. The airline's principal place of business is in the United States.

The Montreal Convention has replaced the Warsaw Convention in most situations. The Montreal Convention adds to the list what has been called a "fifth jurisdiction." Regardless of where the accident occurred, or where the passenger began or ended his trip, the international traveler or his family may sue the foreign airline in the United States if the United States was the passenger's "principal and permanent residence."  For this fifth option to be available, however, the airline must maintain some sort of presence in the United States.     

First Air France Flight 447 Lawsuit: Questions and Answers

The families of Michael and Anne Harris, the American couple on board Air France Flight 447, filed suit this week in Houston federal court.  It's the first lawsuit arising from the crash. The most frequently asked questions about this suit are:

Question:  Aren't the families jumping the gun?  The Air France Fuselage Recoveryblack boxes haven't yet been recovered, and may never be.  For all we know, this may have been the result of a chance encounter with a thunderstorm.  The crash may have been an unavoidable accident with no one to blame.

Answer: The Montreal Convention is the international treaty that governs all claims against airlines involving international air travel.  Under the convention, Air France is responsible even if the the crash was "just an accident."  As a result, Air France must compensate the families for their loss regardless of what the cause of the crash turns out to be.

Question: Flight 447 was from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on a French airline.  Why should the families be allowed to sue in Houston, of all places?

Answer: The Montreal Convention allows the families to sue in the country of the passenger's "principal and permanent" residence.  The families say that, though the couple was living in Brazil, the couple maintained a permanent residence in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston.  If that's so, the families have a good argument tha they are entitled to sue in Houston.

Question: Why did the families file suit in federal court, rather than state court?

Answer: Many aviation lawyers believe that state courts are more favorable than federal courts for family members who have suffered a loss.  So victims' attorneys often prefer to sue in state court.  However, a fairly new federal statute requires almost all cases arising from large air disasters to be heard in federal court.

More Air France Flight 447:

Statutes of Limitation in Aviation Accident Cases

The victim of an airplane or helicopter accident must act on his rights or lose them forever.  That means the victim must file a lawsuit by the appropriate deadline.  In some cases, the victim must first file a special claim form with the right governmental agency.  If he fails to do so on time, or files it with the wrong agency, he willl not be permitted to later sue the government agency that is responsible for his injuries.

The deadlines vary according to the type of claim as well as other factors. A victim should consult an aviation lawyer to determine which deadline applies.  Some of the more common deadlines that may apply in California cases:

  • Cases involving International Air Travel (Warsaw and Montreal Conventions)  - Lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of the aircraft's arrival (or expected arrival) at the destination.
  • Cases against California Governmental Entities (such as those involving municipal airports) - Victim must file a special governmental Claim Form (pdf) within 6 months of accident or no lawsuit is thereafter allowed; lawsuit must be filed no later than 6 months after the governmental agency rejects the claim.
  • Cases alleging negligence or products liability (including design defect)  - Lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of accident.
  • Cases against the Federal Government (such as those involving weather reporting or air traffic control errors) - Victim must file a special Federal Tort Claims Act Claim Form (pdf)  within 2 years of accident or injury; suit must be filed no later than 6 months after government rejects the claim.
  • Cases against EMS Helicopter/Air Ambulance Operators, if MICRA applies - Lawuit must be filed within 3 years of accident; other pre-filing requirements may apply.  Otherwise, lawsuit must be filed within 2 years of accident.
  • Claims against the estate of someone who caused the accident but who has since died are often subject to shorter statutes of limitations than set forth above.  Some deadlines are as short as 6 months.

Additional deadline:

  • Cases against aircraft manufacturer - (including those alleging design defect) -  No lawsuit allowed if accident occurred more than 18 years after date of manufacturer of aircraft of part causing the injury, subject to certain exceptions set forth in the General Aviation Revitalization Act

Some deadlines are extended under special circumstances, such as when the victim is a child.  On the other hand, some deadlines, like the 2- year Warsaw Convention deadline, are not extended for any reason.

Compensating the Families of Air France Flight 447

Are the passengers’ families entitled to compensation for their loss? From whom? Does it matter what caused the crash? Can the families sue in the United States?

Air France is Responsible Regardless of the Cause of the Accident. 

The Montreal Convention requires Air France to compensate the families as long as the crash was caused by an accident.  The Convention defines "accident" to include any unexpected event, from an encounter with severe weather, to mechanical failure, to a terrorist attack.

Air France must compensate each passenger's family:  

  • For all recoverable damages suffered up to $155,000; and
  • For all recoverable damages suffered in excess of $155,000, unless Air France proves it was not in any way “negligent or otherwise at fault."

In addition, Air France must advance $25,000 to cover each family’s “immediate economic needs” within 15 days of identifying who the proper claimants are. The $25,000 payment is credited against Air France’s ultimate obligation to the family.  

As a practical matter, Air France will be liable for all legally recoverable damages without regard to the $155,000 limit. That’s because to avoid liability, Air France has to prove a negative -- that it was not in any way “negligent or at fault.” Regardless of whether it is ultimately determined that the crash was caused by weather, equipment failure, or even terrorism, Air France will not be able to demonstrate that its own negligence did not somehow contribute to the accident.  There are just too many possibilities for Air France to disprove.

The Final Amount of Compensation to Which a Family is Entitled Depends upon Where the Particular Family may Sue.

U.S. law is most favorable for the families, as the laws of other countries severely limit compensation in wrongful death cases. For example, unlike the United States, many countries do not allow families to be compensated for loss of a loved one's "care, comfort, or society."  But the Montreal Convention will permit a family to sue Air France in the U.S. only if: 

  1. The United States was the passenger’s ultimate destination, or
  2. The passenger’s ticket was issued in the United States, or
  3. The passenger’s “principal and permanent residence” was in the United States.

The first two grounds are relatively straightforward. The passenger's travel documents will determine whether the family meets the applicable requirement. The third ground, however, might well be hotly contested in at least some of the families' cases. For example, two Flight 447 passengers were U.S. citizens from Texas who were living in Brazil. But was the U.S. their "principal and permanent" residence? That may depend upon whether they intended to return to their home in Texas and, if so, when. These details may need to be litigated.

Compensation from the Manufacturers.

If the crash was caused by a product defect – such as a problem with the Airbus' weather radar, its flight control system, or a pitot tube -- then the families would be entitled to pursue a product liability claim. Many of the Airbus' components parts are manufactured by U.S. companies.  If  a U.S. manufacturer was responsible for the defect, the families would be permitted to sue the manufacturer here, even if the Montreal Convention did not allow them to sue Air France here.  A family that successfully sues in the United States may be compensated under U.S. law rather than the more restrictive foreign laws. 

Forum Non Conveniens is an Obstacle to Suing Manufacturers in the U.S.

The doctrine of forum non conveniens allows a U.S. court to decline jurisdiction and transfer a case to a foreign country if it decides that, all things considered, the foreign court would be more convenient for all involved.  U.S. courts frequently invoke the doctrine to avoid hearing cases involving foreign aviation accidents. Flight 447 may be one case, however, that a U.S. court may well decide to hear.  After all, the U.S. would be most convenient for the manufacturers because their engineers, their engineering documents and test data are undoubtedly here. There are no eyewitnesses to the accident who would need to be inconvenienced by traveling to the U.S. from abroad to testify. Finally, unlike disasters occurring on foreign soil, it makes no sense to have the case heard near the crash site because there is nothing at the crash site for any judge or jury to see.    

US Airways Flight 1549: What Claims Do The Passengers Have?

Some Flight 1549 passengers have reportedly "lawyered-up."  What legal claims do they have?Flight 1549  Putting aside the question of whether pursuing the claims is the right thing to do -- some say they should simply count their blessings -- do the passengers have any claims to begin with?

Well, it depends on the law that applies.  For example, under California law, a passenger would first have to show that the accident was caused by the airline's negligence.  From what is known so far, that seems unlikely. If, however, the passenger succeeds in proving negligence, he would be entitled to compensation for any physical injuries he sustained as well as compensation for the emotional distress he suffered. 

What if the passenger suffered just emotional distress and no physical injuries? Again using  California law as an example, if the airline was negligent, the passenger could recover for the emotional distress, as long as that the emotional distress was "serious."  (Not much question about that.)

What if the passenger had a foreign destination listed someplace on his itinerary?  That would change everything. Even though the flight was domestic, the Montreal Convention, an international treaty governing airline liability, would trump state law.  The passenger would not need to prove the airline was negligent to recover.  It is enough that a passenger's injuries were the result of an "accident."  The airline would be automatically liable. But under the Convention, the passenger would not be entitled to compensation for mental injuries, regardless of how "serious", unless he also suffered at least some physical injury.

Warsaw and Montreal Conventions

An airline's liability for a passenger's injury or death is most often determined by state law. But if the passenger's trip includes a stop in a foreign country, then the airline's liability is controlled entirely by international treaties.  The treaties are known as the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Convention

The treaties also govern a passenger's claims for injuries occurring on a domestic flight, as long as a foreign destination was on the passenger's itinerary.  That means that state law may govern the claims of one victim of an airline disaster, while a treaty may govern the claims of his friend in the very next seat.  Because different law applies, one victim (or his family) might be entitled to compensation from the airline, and the other not.

Which is more favorable for the victim -- state law or the treaties? It depends on the circumstances of the case. For example, if state law applies, to successfully sue an airline, the passenger must prove that the injury occurred because the airline was "negligent" or, in other words, "careless".  But if a treaty applies, the passenger need not prove the airline was negligent at all. If a treaty applies, the passenger need only prove that his injuries were the result of an "accident." 

What if a flight attendant accidently pours hot coffee on you and you are seriously burned?  Under state law, you could recover from the airline, if you prove the flight attendant was careless.  Of course, if the flight attendant splashed you on purpose, you would be entitled to compensation as well.  But what  if the treaties apply? Can the flight attendant's intentional act be considered an "accident"?  Courts have struggled with this sort of question, and offer no clear-cut answer. 

Texts of Warsaw and Montreal Conventions

Text of Warsaw Convention here. (pdf)

Text of Montreal Convention here. (pdf)

List of countries which have signed on to Montreal Convention here. (pdf)  [updated December 2009]