Central District of California Grants Summary Judgment to Airline in Action by International Passenger Travelling on Cancelled Passport

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment to Singapore Airlines (SIA) in a lawsuit by a passenger who travelled from California to India on a cancelled passport and was denied entry upon arrival in India and returned to the United States.1

Plaintiff purchased a passenger ticket for roundtrip travel to India. Prior to her scheduled travel, she lost her U.S. passport and as a result brought her Indian passport to the airport with her.  That passport, however, had been cancelled, and was stamped with a notation reading: “passport cancelled as acquired by U.S. nationals.” On arrival in India, plaintiff presented her cancelled Indian passport to local immigration officials and was denied entry into the country.  India’s laws and regulations required that SIA transport plaintiff back to her place of origin, and she was immediately put on a flight back to the United States.

In her lawsuit against the airline, plaintiff asserted that SIA was negligent in allowing plaintiff to make the “arduous” trip from California to India without a valid passport, which resulted in “unnecessary travel forced upon her” and resultant injury. Specifically, she alleged that she suffered and continues to suffer severe back pain, headaches, and emotional trauma as a result of this incident. The airline moved for summary judgment on two grounds: (1) that plaintiff’s negligence claim was preempted by the Montreal Convention, and (2) that even if the Montreal Convention did not govern her claim, plaintiff could not prevail under California law on her negligence claim against the airline.

Plaintiff sought to avoid the applicability of the Convention by arguing that the alleged accident – the airline allowing plaintiff to board her flight to India with an invalid passport – occurred before she embarked on her flight and thus did not occur while plaintiff was “on board the aircraft or in the course of embarking or disembarking” the aircraft as required by the Convention. The federal district court rejected this argument, explaining that it erroneously conflates the applicability of the Convention with liability under the Convention.  Applicability of the Convention is determined by whether the alleged injury occurred on board the aircraft or in the process of embarking or disembarking; whereas liability under the Convention is determined by whether an accident occurred on board an aircraft or in the process of embarking or disembarking.  The plaintiff’s argument, therefore, was immaterial to whether the Convention applied.  Because plaintiff alleged that her pain and emotional injuries were caused by the “unnecessary travel” of the return flight to San Francisco, the court concluded that it was indisputable that her alleged injuries occurred while she was on board her return flight from India to San Francisco.  Consequently, it held that the Montreal Convention governed her claim.

The court next examined whether the plaintiff could prevail on a Montreal Convention Article 17 claim which requires proof of an “accident” causing bodily injury and that the accident occurred on board the aircraft or in the process of embarking or disembarking. An Article 17 accident is defined as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”2  Plaintiff alleged that SIA’s decision to allow her to fly to India without a valid passport was an accident for the purposes of the Convention.  However, the court concluded that such event did not constitute an accident because it was not an unexpected or unusual event or happening external to plaintiff.  Plaintiff chose to bring her cancelled passport to the airport, and also chose to board the flight to India knowing that her Indian passport had been cancelled.  Because her own decisions were the proximate cause of the incident, the alleged accident was not “external” to her.  Furthermore, the alleged accident occurred at the check-in counter which is generally considered to be too far removed from the flight to be considered to have taken place during the process of embarking or disembarking.  Since plaintiff was unable to prove that an Article 17 accident caused her injuries or that an accident occurred in the process of embarking or disembarking, the court concluded that she was unable to prevail on an Article 17 claim against SIA.

Despite the Montreal Convention’s application to, and preemption of, plaintiff’s state law negligence claim, the court also addressed whether such a claim would even be viable under the facts presented. Plaintiff argued that SIA owed her a heightened duty of care under California law  and that it breached such duty by allowing her to board the flight to India without a proper passport to enter her destination country.  However, a heightened duty only applies to a sphere of a common carrier’s activity that might constitute a mobile or animated hazard to the plaintiff, such as moving vehicles and the jet and propeller air blasts of an aircraft’s landing area.  Consequently, the court concluded that SIA only owed an ordinary duty of care to plaintiff which did not require it to warn a traveler that she does not have proper documentation to enter a foreign country.

The district court’s decision illustrates the different analyses in determining whether the Montreal Convention applies to a passenger’s claim versus liability under the Convention. It also clarifies that there is no Article 17 accident where a passenger chooses to travel using a passport he or she knows to be cancelled because such event is not external to the passenger.  Finally, the decision confirms that under California law an airline owes a passenger an ordinary duty of care at check-in and is not required to warn a passenger travelling internationally that the passenger does not have proper documentation to enter her destination country.

Plaintiff has filed a Notice of Appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Singapore Airlines was represented by Scott D. Cunningham of Condon & Forsyth LLP.

1 Patel v. Singapore Airlines, Ltd., No. CV 15-4205 FMO, 2017 WL 1078444 (C.D. Cal. March 21, 2017)

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