Eleventh Circuit Rejects Appeal of Woman Injured Because Her Seatbelt Was not Fastened

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed a jury’s decision that a passenger was 99 percent liable for her injuries arising from severe turbulence because she was not wearing her seatbelt despite instructions to do so.[1]

Plaintiff Fanny Quevedo, an experienced traveler, was travelling from Miami to Milan with a layover in Madrid.  The segment from Madrid to Milan, an Iberia Airlines flight, was intended to land at Milan-Malpensa airport.  Prior to takeoff, the Iberia flight crew provided the passengers with the regular safety instructions, including that seatbelts must remain fastened at all times when the seatbelt light is on, and that Iberia recommended that seatbelts remained fastened “at all times.”  The fastened seatbelt recommendation is reflected in Iberia’s policies: when the seatbelt light is on passengers are reminded to keep their seatbelts fastened every fifteen minutes, and if a flight crew member cannot see a passenger’s seatbelt when securing the cabin, they are required to move clothing and wake up sleeping passengers to ensure that seatbelts are fastened.

On the subject flight, the Captain turned the seatbelt light off after takeoff.  At that point, the Plaintiff retrieved an item from an overhead bin, returned to her seat and fell asleep with her jacket draped around her.  As the flight approached Milan-Malpensa, the Captain directed the flight crew to ensure that all passengers’ seatbelts were fastened and turned on the seatbelt light.  The weather near Milan-Malpensa then unexpectedly and quickly worsened, and Milan-Milpensa was forced to close.  The flight entered a holding pattern near Genoa, which then also determined not to accept traffic, and the flight then diverted to Milan-Linate.

During this time, the cabin crew secured the cabin twice, checking to ensure that seatbelts were fastened.  Although Plaintiff’s seatbelt was not fastened, the cabin crew believed that it was based on how her jacket and hands were situated.  Then, the aircraft quickly jostled and Plaintiff’s seatbelt fell and dangled showing that it was not fastened.  One of the cabin crew members immediately saw that Plaintiff was not wearing her seatbelt, and got up to ensure Plaintiff put her seatbelt on. 

At that point, the aircraft experienced extreme turbulence and dropped 3,000 feet.  The Plaintiff and the cabin crew member who got up to assist her hit the ceiling of the aircraft two or three times, and both sustained serious injuries.  No one else onboard was hurt.

The Plaintiff sued Iberia under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, which frequent readers will recall governs injuries sustained on roundtrip flights between signatory countries.  Iberia asserted an affirmative defense of comparative liability, arguing that Plaintiff was negligent in failing to secure her seatbelt.  The case proceeded at trial where Iberia repeated that argument.  Plaintiff asserted that Iberia was negligent in failing to ensure that her seatbelt was fastened, and in diverting to Milan-Linate.

The jury heard evidence from among others, the flight Captain, the crew member who attempted to assist the Plaintiff, and Plaintiff’s expert.  Plaintiff’s expert testified that the diversion was a mistake because Iberia knew of the poor weather conditions in the area, and should have supplied additional fuel to divert to another area airport.  He also testified that given the actual conditions, the flight Captain should have declared a fuel emergency and landed in Genoa despite the closure.

The flight Captain disagreed with Plaintiff’s expert.  He testified that the fuel supply was above minimum requirements, there was ample fuel while in the holding pattern, and thus there was no basis to declare an emergency.  He also testified that he could not land at Genoa because it was not accepting traffic, and that landing in Milan-Linate was the correct decision.

Before jury deliberations, the trial court denied Plaintiff’s motion for a directed verdict.  The jury then found the Plaintiff 99 percent liable for her injuries.  Thereafter, the trial court denied motions for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.  On both motions, Plaintiff argued that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence.

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in denying the motion for a new trial.  Review of denial of a motion for a new trial is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, a high standard.  In rejecting the Plaintiff’s appeal, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the trial court that the jury’s verdict was not against the weight of the evidence.  It cited to the cabin crew member’s explanation for why he thought that the Plaintiff’s seatbelt was fastened and noted that it was the jury’s province to weigh the conflicting testimony between the flight Captain and Plaintiff’s expert.  The Court also noted that the only two people who were injured on the flight were Plaintiff, whose seatbelt was not fastened, and the cabin crew member who was trying to help Plaintiff.  In short, so long as there was some evidence to support the jury’s determination, it would not be overturned.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

[1] Quevedo v. Iberia Lineas Aereas, No. 19-13514 (11th Cir. April 27, 2020).

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