Air Transport World

Cabin safety on trial: Supreme Court ruling could expose airlines to increased liability.(Health & Safety)

A push to expose international airlines to greater liability for cabin injuries will either hit a brick wall or surge forward early this year when the US Supreme Court rules on Olympic Airways vs. Husain. At stake is whether the high court will agree or disagree with a broad new interpretation on what can be considered an "accident." The action represents the latest assault on the tried-and-true threshold for liability under the Warsaw Convention and could have a major impact on the priority of cabin safety initiatives.

Under the most recent update to Warsaw, crafted in Montreal in 1999 and signed by 30 countries, an airline's liability is capped at roughly $140,000 when a passenger is injured, though the claim can be unlimited if there is proof that the carrier did not take all necessary precautions to prevent the event. However, the Montreal agreement, which ultimately will replace Warsaw as more countries sign on, made no changes to Article 17: Said injury must be caused by an "accident."

Based on a 1985 Supreme Court opinion (Air France vs. Saks), the courts have held that an accident is the result of an "unexpected or unusual event or happening" that is "external" to the passenger. Under Husain, however, the lower courts ruled that a passenger's internal reaction to an otherwise normal flight can be considered an accident if the airline somehow was negligent in providing adequate warnings. In that case, a passenger with severe asthma died from complications brought on by secondhand smoke following an international flight where the airline seated him close to the smoking section.

While seemingly narrow in scope, attorneys say the Husain ruling has implications for veiled ailments like deep vein thrombosis that apparently are exacerbated by normal flight conditions. …

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