INSIGHTS On Massachusetts Personal Injury Law

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Airline Liability for Personal Injury or Death on International Flights

While fatal airplane crashes are statistically quite rare these days, many types of accidents and injuries still occur during airline travel. If an airline passenger is injured or killed on an international flight, that person’s right to compensation will likely fall under an international treaty known as the Montreal Convention.

The Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air” (The Montreal Convention) governs airline liability for injuries or death to passengers during most international flights. The 1999 Montreal Convention superseded a similar treaty known as the Warsaw Convention, which governed personal injury claims in international air travel dating back to the 1920’s. The United States ratified The Montreal Convention in 2003. While the scheme under The Montreal Convention is generally beneficial to personal injury and wrongful death claimants, it is important to understand a passenger’s rights and limitations under the treaty.

Article 17 of The Montreal Convention provides that an airline is liable for personal injury or death of a passenger on an international flight between two member nations. There are currently 150 member nations. In order to succeed in making a claim under the Convention, the passenger must prove that injury or death resulted from an “accident,” and that the accident took place on board the aircraft or “in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”

The United States Supreme Court has defined “accident” under the Convention as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.” Air France v. Saks, 470 U.S. 392, 405 (1985). This admittedly ambiguous definition has been defined broadly by courts to encompass passenger-to-passenger assaults, airplane hijacking, as well as the failure of an airline to provide proper medical attention to an ill passenger.

When the injury-causing accident happens outside of the plane, the question becomes whether the passenger was in the “operation of embarking or disembarking.” Courts have provided varying interpretations of this clause when deciding if an accident falls under the purview of the Convention, and will look at factors such as: (1) the location of the passenger at the time of the injury; (2) what that person was doing at that time, and (3) the proximity of the passenger to the actual airplane. A passenger who fell and was injured on wet stairs outside the airplane was found to have an actionable claim under the Convention. There is no hard and fast rule for determining whether an accident is actionable under the Convention and the facts of each case need to be analyzed by an experienced personal injury attorney to determine whether an injured person has a viable claim.

Assuming the passenger’s death or injury claim falls within the scope of Article 17, The Montreal Convention has a two-tiered system for recovery. For viable claims, the airline is automatically liable for proven damages up to 113,100 Special Drawing Rights (SDR), which today amounts to approximately $170,000. This amount was raised in 2009 from the original Convention limits of 100,000 SDR. The only way the airline can be relieved from liability up to damages of 113,100 SDR is by proving that the injured person was negligent in causing his or her own injuries. Psychiatric damages not tied to any physical injury are generally not recoverable.

There are situations where an injured person’s damages exceed 113,100 SDR. To avoid paying an injured party more than 113,100 SDR, an airline has the burden of proving that either (1) the accident was not caused by the airline’s own negligence; or (2) the accident was caused solely by the negligence of a third party. The burden of proof in a personal injury claim under The Montreal Convention generally falls on the airline. This is different than typical personal injury claims, such as a medical malpractice claim, a car accident or even a claim for injuries sustained on a domestic airplane flight, where the plaintiff has the burden of proving the defendant’s negligence in order to recover.

While the above is a summary of some of the more important sections of The Montreal Convention, there are always circumstances and exceptions unique to pursuing any personal injury claim involving an international flight. It is important to note that The Montreal Convention has a two-year time limit within which to bring a claim, which is shorter than many domestic jurisdictions, including the general three year statute of limitations in Massachusetts. SUGARMAN lawyers have experience handling claims relating to injury and death occurring during airline travel, including claims subject to the Montreal Convention. If you or a family member has been seriously injured during airline travel and wish to speak with one of our personal injury attorneys, please fill out a Contact Form, call us at (617) 542-1000 or e-mail info@sugarman.com.