1. Archive

Liability of airlines vs. rights of passengers

Published Oct. 18, 2005

The jumbo jetliner had just taken off for a short flight from Miami to Nassau, the Bahamas, when its engines failed and it began losing altitude. The crew calmly alerted passengers to get ready for a crash landing in the Atlantic. However, after a few terrifying minutes, one engine was restarted and the big jet glided on to a Miami runway.

Can any of the 162 passengers on board sue the airline for emotional trauma?

That question was before the Supreme Court on Monday in a case that could have an enormous impact on the rights of international travelers and the liability of airlines.

On May 5, 1983, an Eastern Airlines wide-bodied jet almost ditched into the Atlantic because mechanics had failed to replace O-rings on the engines, causing a loss of oil pressure.

Although none of the passengers suffered physical injury, many said that they were emotionally traumatized.

Last year, an appeals court in Atlanta ruled that these passengers can win damages from Eastern for their mental injuries. The ruling was based on the 1929 Warsaw Convention, which governs international air travel.

Airline lawyers said that the decision, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would open the way for passengers who experience turbulence or a single engine shut-down to sue for damages.

The Warsaw treaty has been much criticized as outdated. The survivors of passengers killed on an international flight can recover only $75,000 _ a fraction of what they could receive if the death occurred on a domestic flight. However, the treaty says that the airlines must pay the damages resulting from any "accident," regardless of whether they were at fault.

For the justices, the key issue is how to define the French term lesion corporelle. The 1929 treaty was written in French and says that the airlines are liable for a death, wounding or toute autre lesion corporelle suffered by passengers. The appeals court said the term included mental as well as physical suffering.

In other actions Monday, the court:

Let stand a federal judge's order requiring three suburban Kansas City, Mo., school districts to accept black students from inner-city schools.

Rejected a constitutional attack against a Montana law that automatically imposes longer sentences for criminals who used guns.

Refused to let police in Massachusetts stop and search someone solely because that person reportedly was toting a handgun in public.

Let stand a ruling requiring the city of Norfolk, Va., to elect its seven City Council members from districts. An appeals court in Richmond concluded citywide elections discriminated against black voters.

Let stand a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowing a police officer to be sued for displaying "deliberate indifference" to the safety of a citizen.

Let stand a New York court ruling forbidding utilities from including charitable contributions in their costs and rate-making formula.

Agreed to decide in a Wisconsin case whether police violate a suspect's rights when they question him about a crime when the lawyer representing him in another criminal case is not present.

Let stand an appellate ruling in a New York case that Rastafarian prisoners cannot be required to cut their hair.

Let stand a California court ruling in favor of a damage award to a computer programer who was fired for refusing to provide a urine sample.

_ Information from the AP and Reuters was used in this report.