U.S. District Court Upholds Rule that Montreal Convention “Accident” Inquiry is Objective

The United States District Court for the District of Massachusets recently reaffirmed the rule that the inquiry into whether an “accident” occurred for Montreal Convention purposes is an objecive inquiry, not one subjective to the passenger claiming that an “accident” causing his or her injuries occurred. In Moore v. British Airways, PLC,1 Plaintiff was a passenger onboard a British Airways flight from Boston to London, as part of round-trip transportation.2 Upon arrival in London, the jetbridge intended for disembarkation was broken, which forced the passengers to disembark via a mobile staircase. According to the uncontradicted British Airways testimony submitted with its motion for summary judgment, the use of mobile staircases to disembark aircraft at London’s Heathrow Airport is a common occurrence. The Plaintiff successfully navigated nearly the entire staircase but fell off of the bottom step, which had a greater distance between it and the ground than the space between the preceeding steps. She claimed that she was not expecting this difference, or the use of a mobile staircase for disembarkation, which allegedly were the cause of her fall, and sued British Airways on account of her resulting injuries.

After her fall, British Airways investigated the incident. It found that nothing wrong with the mobile staircase; it had a good grip, was in the proper position, there was no liquid or debris on the staircase, nor any jostling among passengers that could have caused or contributed to Plaintiff’s fall. In short, the staircase was working as intended, and neither Plaintiff nor her expert on staircases disputed as much. Indeed, her expert admitted that certain industry guidelines applicable to permanent staircases that he claimed precluded a difference in height between the final step and the preceeding steps were not applicable to this mobile staircase.

The question of whether an “accident” has occurred under the Montreal Convention for which the defendant carrier is liable asks whether “a passenger’s injury is caused by an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”3 The Moore Plaintiff argued that she could not recall ever having disembarked an aircraft via a mobile staircase, and thus the use of one in this instance was unusual and unexpected and external to her. But the District Court explained that the Plaintiff’s subjective expectations are irrelevant to the Montreal Convention “accident” analysis, holding that “Although Plaintiff testified she does not remember ever using stairs to disembark from a plane, the inquiry is not about her personal, subjective expectations.” Because Plaintiff could not dispute that British Airways’ use of a mobile staircase was unusual to its operations, Plaintiff’s argument failed, and she was forced to come forward with evidence that there was something wrong with the staircase itself.

As set forth above, Plaintiff had no evidence to support such a claim, and the British Airways investigation into the staircase concluded that it was functioning entirely as intended. Plaintiff tried to counter British Airways’ arguments in this regard by citing to Cuartas v. American Airlines, Inc., an unreported Indiana case. No. 1:10-cv-00390-LJM-TAB, 2012 WL 845543, at *1 (S.D. Ind. Mar. 12, 2012). But the facts in Cuartas were easily distinguishable. There, the staircase was wet, lacked traction, and the passengers had jostled with one another during disembarkation, all of which contributed to that plaintiff’s injuries. On that basis, the Cuartas court denied the defendant-carrier’s motion for summary judgment. The Moore court held that Cuartas does not stand for the proposition that there is a per se rule that the use of a mobile staircase to disembark is itself an “accident” within the meaning of the Montreal Convetion. Rather, Moore held that Cuartas stands only for the narrow proposition that when using a mobile staircase, it should have proper traction, be dry, free from debris, and the carrier should ensure no jostling among the disembarking passengers. In other words, the carrier must ensure that when using a mobile staircase, it functions as intended. Because British Airways did so in this instance, its motion for summary judgment was granted.

The Moore decision reaffirms the general rule that the Montreal Convention “accident” inquiry is objective, and looks not to the injured passenger’s subjective expectations, such as what method will be used to disembark an aircraft, but to an objective determination of whether there was a defect in the operation of the aircraft or one if its parts that caused the plaintiff’s injury.4

1 No. 19-30007-MGM (D. Mass. Dec. 28, 2020).

2 The Montreal Convention covers injury claims that occur onboard or while embarking or disembarking round-trip international flights between signatory nations.

3 Air France v. Saks, 470 U.S. 392, 405 (1985).

4 Plaintiff has appealed the District Court’s decision, and the appeal remains pending.

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