Recovering compensation for Accidents on International Flights: a slippery subject


Most trips abroad are happy times but on rare occasions passengers are injured, sometimes even fatally, in plane crashes, incidents during a flight or whilst boarding or disembarking.

In such circumstances, many Passengers will be protected by the Montreal Convention, an international treaty signed in 1999.

The Convention provides a scheme for compensating victims of accidents on a flight, in certain circumstances.  For such a claim to succeed it must be proved that:

  1. The passenger suffered a bodily injury.
  2. Which was caused by an accident; and
  3. The accident took place on board the aircraft or during the process of embarking or disembarking.

Establishing this criteria is not always easy as a further qualification is that the injury must be caused by an unusual or unexpected event external to the passenger.

This is often a difficult concept to understand and establish, as highlighted in the recent High Court case of Carmelo Labbadia v Alitalia (2019).

In this case, the Claimant disembarked the aircraft using a set of mobile stairs and slipped on compacted snow on the steps, suffering injuries for which he claimed compensation.

The poor weather conditions in Milan in winter were not unusual in themselves and so the airline argued that the presence of snow was not in itself an unusual or unexpected event, so slipping on snow could not amount to an accident.  The airline also argued that the passenger had caused or contributed to his injury by failing to immediately reach out for the handrail as he left the plane.

The Claimant argued however, that he had no reason to expect slippery stairs on exiting the plane due to compacted snow, as passengers could rightly expect that the steps would have been cleared of any snow or ice.  The Judge favoured this argument and held that the Claimant’s injuries were directly caused by the acts or omissions of the airport personnel which was an unusual or unexpected event to him.  Furthermore, the Claimant could not be criticized for descending the stairs as instructed by the carrier.

Most people would assume as a matter of common sense, that if an airline or airport staff, failed to ensure a safe means of embarking or disembarking from a plane, this would entitle the injured party to compensation. Entitlement to compensation under the Convention, however, is not based upon the law of negligence, but instead upon the terms of the Articles of the Convention itself. In addition, it is not possible to fall back on the law of negligence if the Convention is held to apply to a particular set of circumstances, but such circumstances do not give raise to a compensation claim within the Articles themselves.

This case clearly shows that airlines will fight claims where they have failed to ensure the safety of their passengers but, believe they may have a technical defence, based upon the complex wording of the Convention. Accordingly, expert knowledge of the Articles and how they are applied is required to ensure personal injury compensation is recovered when such accidents occur.

Further information regarding accidents of this nature and possible claims for compensation can be found at here.

David Knipe is an Associate in the Claimant Personal Injury team at Sintons in Newcastle upon Tyne.  Contact him at david.knipe@sintons.co.uk or on 0191 226 7926.


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