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 airline’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.