The Montreal Convention governs the rights and liabilities of air carriers for injuries sustained by passengers during international air transportation.1 Under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, an air carrier is liable for a passenger’s injuries that are caused by an “accident.” The United States Supreme Court has defined an “accident” as an “unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.”2 Trial courts are frequently called upon to determine whether a particular injury-causing incident meets this description. A recent decision from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts illustrates that the “accident” inquiry is an objective one, and plaintiff’s own expectations are immaterial.
In Moore v. British Airways, plaintiff was injured while disembarking her flight from Boston to London Heathrow Airport.3 Due to a problem with the jetbridge, passengers disembarked the aircraft via a mobile staircase. The distance between the final step of the staircase and the ground was larger than the distance between the preceding twenty steps. Before stepping onto the ground, plaintiff descended the staircase without incident. Plaintiff did not expect the larger step onto the ground, which caused her to lose her balance, fall awkwardly, and injure her ankles. Plaintiff’s travel companion, who descended the staircase ahead of plaintiff, was similarly surprised by the final step and turned to warn plaintiff, but it was too late.
Plaintiff first argued that the use of a mobile staircase was an “unexpected event” and, therefore, constituted an accident; in particular, she argued that she did not recall ever using stairs to disembark from an aircraft. The court disagreed, reasoning that defendant had shown that the use of a mobile staircase to disembark passengers is routine in the industry, and plaintiff’s own expectations about using a staircase carried no weight.
The court then turned to the principal dispute: whether the use of a staircase which has a greater distance between the final step and the ground is an “accident” under the Montreal Convention.4 The court held that it is not because plaintiff had failed to show that such a height difference is an inappropriate occurrence in the operation of the aircraft or an unexpected event external to the passenger.
As an initial matter, the court determined that the stairs were functioning normally and positioned as intended. There was no evidence that there was “anything amiss with the operation” or that the height of the final step was unusual for mobile staircases. The court also pointed out that plaintiff did not fall as a result of some outside force, such as liquid or another foreign object on the stairs, or jostling or being pushed by fellow passengers.5 Finally, the court rejected the opinion of plaintiff’s expert who asserted that the staircase did not comply with various industry standards, reasoning that all of the standards cited by the expert were either voluntary or applicable only to non-portable stairs.
This case confirms that an individual’s personal expectations are immaterial to the question of whether a passenger’s injuries were the result of an “accident.”
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1 Unification of Certain Rules for International Air Carriage by Air, May 28, 1999 (entered into force on November 4, 2003), reprinted in S. Treaty Doc. No. 106-45, 1999 WL 33292734.
2 Air France v. Saks, 470 U.S. 392, 405 (1985).
3 Moore v. British Airways PLC, — F. Supp. 3d —, No. 19-30007-MGM, 2020 WL 7699694 (D. Mass. Dec. 28, 2020).
4 The court explained that under First Circuit precedent, proof of an accident giving rise to liability requires that: “(1) the claim must allege an occurrence which arises from some inappropriate or unintended happenstance in the operation of the aircraft or airline and, additionally, (2) a carrier’s Article 17 liability is triggered only when a passenger’s injury is caused by an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger.” Id. at *3-*4 (internal quotations omitted).
5 By contrast, cases holding that a fall on a staircase could constitute an accident typically involve allegations that some outside force contributed to the fall. See, e.g., Gezzi v. British Airways PLC, 991 F.2d 603, 605 (9th Cir. 1993) (affirming finding that presence of water on the steps of a staircase was an “accident”).