Coffee, Sir?

Photo by Edward Eyer on Unsplash

You get on the plane for a routine flight between Palma de Mallorca to Vienna and, next thing, you’re thinking about instructing lawyers to pursue a personal injury claim on your daughter’s behalf.

Like billions of air travellers before him, HM probably had no idea when asked by the flight attendant whether he wanted a coffee that it would lead to legal action before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) (see Case C532/18 Niki Luftfahrt).

When we think of accidents involving airlines, we often fear the worst consequences, but what about a coffee cup which spills over and scalds a 6 year old child?

This is precisely what happened on the flight from Palma to Vienna. The coffee had been served to the child’s father (HM) and placed on his folding table. For unknown reasons, the cup tipped over and injury occurred to the child (GN).

The young girl then sought compensation for her injuries from the Austrian airline Niki Luftfahrt GmbH (which had subsequently gone into liquidation), so father took action (on her behalf) against the administrator of the airline (ZU).

The question which then arose was whether such an incident was within the meaning of the definition of ‘accident’ which is to be found within the international agreement known as the Montreal Convention. International Conventions are entered into by States to lay down common legal principles and thus avoid the (serious) problem of competing legal jurisdictions e.g. between France and the United States of America. The Montreal Convention has been incorporated into EU Law since 28 June 2004.

The Supreme Court of Austria referred the matter to the CJEU for clarification under the preliminary ruling procedure in terms of Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

The CJEU noted that the liability of airlines for personal injuries under the Montreal Convention is strict (see paragraph 36 of the judgement). The Court made two other observations (at paragraphs 33 and 34 of its judgement):

‘In the present case, it is apparent from the wording of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention that, in order to engage the liability of the carrier, the event causing the death or bodily injury of the passenger must be classified as an ‘accident’ and that accident must take place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking. …

Since the concept of ‘accident’ is not defined anywhere in the Montreal Convention, reference must be made to the ordinary meaning of that concept in its context, in the light of the object and purpose of that convention.’

So was the incident which occurred on the flight from Palma to Vienna an ‘accident’ within the meaning of the Convention?

The answer to this question was an emphatic yes from the CJEU. According to the Court, ‘the ordinary meaning given to the concept of ‘accident’ is that of an unforeseen, harmful and involuntary event.’

As the CJEU stated:

‘… the concept of ‘accident’ … covers all situations occurring on board an aircraft in which an object used when serving passengers has caused bodily injury to a passenger, without it being necessary to examine whether those situations stem from a hazard typically associated with aviation.’

Airlines can always escape liability if they can show that the injury was caused by the acts or omissions of the passenger, but in this case this was not an option.

A link to a press release summarising the details of the Court’s judgement can be found below:

http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=221796&pageIndex=0&doclang=EN&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=794192

A link to the judgement of the Court can be found below:

http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=221796&pageIndex=0&doclang=EN&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=794192

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 24 December 2019