U.S. District Dismisses Sexual Assault Claims against Airline and its Holding Company that Occurred on International Flight for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction and Preemption under the Montreal Convention

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently dismissed a plaintiff’s claims against an airline and its holding company arising from an alleged sexual assault she suffered on an international flight from Los Angeles to Panama City for lack of personal jurisdiction over the holding company and because the claims against the airline were preempted by the Montreal Convention.1

According to the plaintiff’s complaint, she was sexually assaulted by a passenger sitting next to her almost immediately after she took her seat.  She requested a seat change, but the crew initially denied her request.  After the alleged assailant “completely mount[ed]” the plaintiff, she escaped her seat, woke up the flight crew, and requested again that her seat be moved.  This time she was accommodated, but moved to a seat still within visibility of the alleged assailant, who allegedly continued his behavior and terrorized the plaintiff.  The offending behavior continued after the flight landed, when the plaintiff was forced to wait near the alleged assaulter.

The plaintiff filed her complaint in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the airline, known in the U.S. as Copa Airlines, its holding company, Copa Holdings, and the alleged assailant.  She alleged several causes of action against the alleged assailant, but only two causes of action – intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence – against Copa Airlines and its holding company.  Both Copa entities removed the case to the Central District of California, and then moved to dismiss on separate grounds.

Copa Holdings moved to dismiss because it contended that there were no grounds upon which the court could exercise personal jurisdiction over it.  The plaintiff countered that personal jurisdiction could be asserted by imputing Copa Airlines’ actions to Copa Holdings, and that therefore the court had both specific and general personal jurisdiction over Copa Holdings.  Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that personal jurisdiction could be exercised over Copa Holdings because of its relationship to Copa Airlines under agency and alter ego theories.

With respect to the agency theory, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that general jurisdiction could be asserted under agency theory because the Supreme Court rejected that proposition in the well-known case Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 136 (2014).  The Supreme Court left open the question of whether specific jurisdiction could be asserted under agency theory, but here the court concluded that it could not.  It noted that the Ninth Circuit has expressed serious doubt over whether specific jurisdiction could be obtained via agency theory in Williams v. Yamaha Motor Co., 851 F.3d 1015, 1024 (9th Cir. 2017), and that it was unable to find any case in the Ninth Circuit holding that agency theory permitted the assertion of specific jurisdiction following Williams.  Inasmuch as the plaintiff’s only jurisdictional allegations against Copa Holdings was that it owned Copa Airlines, the court rejected plaintiff’s contention that under agency theory the court could exercise personal jurisdiction over Copa Holdings.

The plaintiff made essentially the same argument with respect to asserting personal jurisdiction over Copa Holdings under alter ego theory.  Because the plaintiff’s jurisdictional allegations were so bare, and because total ownership and sole management, even if proven, are insufficient to establish personal jurisdiction under alter ego theory, the court rejected that argument as well. 

Finally, the plaintiff argued that the court could exercise personal jurisdiction over Copa Holdings under the “exceptional case” theory set forth in Daimler, which holds that a court could exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign defendant under certain undefined “exceptional” circumstances.  The plaintiff argued here that such exceptional circumstances existed here because of the nature of Copa Holding’s alleged conduct.  But the “exceptional case” theory evaluates not whether the conduct alleged is egregious, but the extent of defendant’s connection to the forum determining whether it has personal jurisdiction over that defendant.  Because the court found the connection between the Central District of California and Copa Holdings to be lacking under the agency and alter ego theories, it concluded that no “exceptional case” existed here that would allow it to exercise jurisdiction over Copa Holdings.  Having found no basis to exercise personal jurisdiction over Copa Holdings, the court dismissed plaintiff’s action as against that entity.  The court further held that no jurisdictional discovery would be permitted because the plaintiff’s jurisdictional allegations were no more than a hunch, backed by no proper supporting evidence.

The court then addressed the plaintiff’s claims against Copa Airlines.  Frequent readers of this blog will recall that a passenger’s claims for injury suffered onboard an international flight are governed by the Montreal Convention where, as here, the takeoff and destination countries are signatories to that treaty. 

Here, Copa Airlines argued that plaintiff’s claims, which are state law claims, were preempted by the Montreal Convention, compelling the court to dismiss her action as against Copa Airlines.  The court agreed, holding that the plaintiff did not even address the preemption argument in her opposition to defendants’ motion to dismiss, and therefore waived her rights with respect to that argument.  In reality, it is unlikely that the plaintiff could have defeated the preemption argument anyway given the nature of her allegations.

Finally, the court considered whether it should grant plaintiff leave to amend her complaint to set forth viable causes of action against either or both of the Copa entities.  Because plaintiff’s claims were state law claims, the court held that amendment would be futile because they still would be preempted by the Montreal Convention, even if the plaintiff somehow could establish jurisdiction over Copa Holdings.  Moreover, the statute of limitations under the Montreal Convention already had run, and is not subject to equitable tolling, meaning that any amendment would be untimely, and could be dismissed on statute of limitations grounds. 

Based on the foregoing, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s action as against the Copa entities in its entirety without leave to amend.  The case was remanded to state court where the plaintiff can pursue the alleged assailant. 

 


 

1 Doe v. Compania Panemena de Aviacion, No. CV-21-2536, 2021 WL 3012849 (C.D. Cal. July 14, 2021).

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