USA: reasonable standard of care applies on pilot decisions to disembark passengers under Tokyo Convention

Michael Wukoschitz's picture

On September 29, 2003, a group of Egyptian businessmen, their wives and a Brazilian fiancée, boarded Alaska Airlines Flight 694 in Vancouver, British Columbia.The nine plaintiffs took up all but three of the first class seats. According to an American passenger who sat next ot one of the plaintiffs, the flight attendants treated the Egyptians badly. She saw no sign that any person in the first class section was drunk, nor did she  observe any misconduct of any kind on the part of the passengers. After harsh discussions on the standing in the aisle of one passenger who then was asked to fill out a a Customer Inflight Disturbance Report, a flight attendend called the cockpit and announced that she had “lost control of the first-class cabin”. The pilot immediately diverted the plane to Reno, where local police and TSA officials were waiting at the gate and the passengers were disembarked. Though the police and TSA quickly cleared plaintiffs to continue flying, the captain refused to let them reboard. Plaintiffs suffered serious consequences. Because they had to take a later flight, they missed their scheduled meeting with a manufacturer of natural gas equipment that they had hoped to distribute in Egypt.

Plaintiffs sued Alaska Airlines alleging damages due to delay under Article 19 of the Warsaw Convention and a variety of state-law defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. The district court eventually granted Alaska’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ state-law claims as preempted by the Warsaw Convention and denied plaintiffs leave to file a supplemental complaint. The district court also granted Alaska’s motion for summary judgment on the Warsaw Convention claim on the ground that the airline was entitled to immunity under the Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft (“Tokyo Convention”).

Article 8 of the Tokyo Convention empowers the captain to disembark anyone “who[m] he has reasonable grounds to believe has committed” an act which “jeopardize[s] good order and discipline on board.” Article 9 empowers a captain to turn  passengers over to the police if he has “reasonable grounds to believe” that they have committed a “serious offence according to the penal law of the State of registration of the aircraft.”

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held  that a reasonable standard of care applies in determining whether airlines are immune under the Tokyo Convention. A summary judgment is generally an inappropriate way to decide questions of reasonableness because the jury’s unique competence in applying the reasonable man standard is thought ordinarily to preclude summary judgment. Reasonableness had to be determined as a matter of fact, not law. Even if the jury were to find that the captain had reasonable grounds to divert the plane to Reno, it could well conclude that he did not act reasonably once the plane was on the ground. As an officer charged with enforcing the statute as to passengers aboard his aircraft, the captain had to familiarize himself with its terms.

The Court of Appeals reversed the grant of summary judgment on plaintiffs’ delay claims and remanded them for trial along with their defamation claim for an inflight announcement after the plane took off from Reno. It affirmed  the dismissal of plaintiffs’ defamation claims for statements made on the ground and the district court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion to  supplement their complaint.

Find full judgement here>>.

 

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