Lack of Defibrillator Does Not Trigger Liability Under the Montreal Convention

In Aziz v. Air India, a federal court in California granted summary judgment in favor of Air India in a case arising from an in-flight cardiac arrest suffered by passenger Ramazan Aziz on an international flight governed by the Montreal Convention. The trial court ruled in favor of the carrier, finding that no “accident,” as defined by Article 17 of the Convention, had occurred.

Upon landing in Los Angeles and while taxiing to the gate, the passenger seated next to Aziz noticed that he had collapsed and was not breathing. A flight attendant was alerted, who immediately summoned for a doctor seated nearby. The doctor found that Aziz had no pulse, was not breathing, and was very pale. The doctor was unable to revive Aziz with CPR and oxygen. There was no defibrillator on the aircraft, and the doctor did not request one. When paramedics boarded, they were able to resume heart activity for a brief moment, employing a defibrillator and intravenous drugs. However, they ultimately were unable to completely revive Aziz, and he was pronounced dead onboard the aircraft.

The Aziz family filed suit, alleging that Aziz would have survived if the aircraft had been equipped with a defibrillator. In addressing Air India’s summary judgment motion, the court analyzed two issues relevant to the “accident” inquiry: 1) whether there was an “event or occurrence,” and 2) whether the occurrence was “unexpected or unusual.”

No “Event” Under Article 17

An issue previously disputed under Article 17 was whether a carrier’s inaction could constitute an “event” for Article 17 purposes. The U.S. Supreme Court answered that question in the affirmative in Olympic Airways v. Husain. There, the cabin crew refused requests by an asthmatic passenger to be reseated away from the smoking section of the cabin. The passenger later died in an apparent reaction to the tobacco smoke. The Supreme Court held that inaction, consisting of “the rejection of explicit request for assistance,” is an “event” for Article 17 purposes. Two subsequent decisions by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Caman v. Continental Airlines and Twardowski v. American Airlines, further defined the circumstances under which carrier inaction may constitute an Article 17 “event.” In those decisions, the Ninth Circuit limited liability for carrier inaction to circumstances where there is failure to comply with legal or regulatory “requirements,” or rejection of specific health- based requests for help, as opposed to simple public agency “requests” or “recommendations.”

Under this framework, the Aziz court held that there was no “event” since there was no request for a defibrillator by the onboard doctor, and because there was no requirement for defibrillators at the time under Indian law or U.S. law, or by ICAO.

Occurrence Not Unexpected Or Unusual

The court’s inquiry then focused on the unresolved question of whether compliance with industry standards is an appropriate test for determining whether an occurrence is “unexpected or unusual.”

The Fifth Circuit, in Blansett v. Continental Airlines, Inc., held that a carrier’s compliance with regulatory requirements alone is sufficient to find that there was no unusual or unexpected occurrence. The Blansett court specifically noted the “demonstrated will of the Supreme Court not to create a per se rule that any departure from an industry standard of care must be an ‘accident.’”

The Aziz court, however, rejected the notion that industry standards do not factor into the analysis, citing Fulop v. Malev Hungarian Airlines. The Fulop court reasoned that “any major deviation from a standard articulated in recognized practices and procedures represents the exceptional case – the unusual or unexpected happening.” However, the Aziz family failed to put forth any evidence of an industry standard regarding defibrillators. Accordingly, the court held that there was insufficient evidence upon which an unusual or unexpected occurrence could be found.

In sum, the Aziz court held that there was no “event” given the lack of a request for an onboard defibrillator by the responding doctor, or any legal or regulatory requirement for the same. The court further held that plaintiffs could not show that Aziz’s death was “unusual or unexpected” without any evidence of industry standards regarding onboard defibrillators. Accordingly, the carrier’s summary judgment motion was granted and the case dismissed.