U.S. Court: mental anguish compensable under Montreal Convention if it results from an accident that also caused bodily injury

Michael Wukoschitz's picture

Plaintiff Jane Doe and her eleven-year-old daughter flew aboard Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi to Chicago. When she stuck her hand into the seat pocket in front of her, she was unexpectedly pricked by a hypodermic needle that lay hidden within. The needle drew blood from her finger.  Doe was prescribed medication for possible exposure to hepatitis, tetanus, and HIV, and she underwent several rounds of testing over the following year. Thankfully for Doe, all the tests came back negative. Nevertheless, Doe claimed that she refrained from sexual intercourse with her husband and from sharing food with her daughter until one year after the incident, when her doctor told her that she could be certain that she had not contracted a disease from the needlestick.

She claimed damages from Etihad for both her physical injury and her “mental distress, shock, mortification, sickness and illness, outrage and embarrassment from natural sequela of possible exposure to various diseases".

The district court granted partial summary judgment for Etihad as far as Doe’s fear of contagion and other emotional-distress and mental-anguish damages were concerned.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, however, held that the plain text of the Montreal Convention allowed Doe to recover all her “damage sustained” from the incident, which included damages for both physical injury and accompanying emotional or mental harm. Article 17 of Montreal provides for liablity of the carrier for any "damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking". Analyzing this text, he Court held that “in case of” didn't not mean “caused by” as the meaning of “in case of” was conditional, not causal. Doe may therefore recover damages for her mental anguish, regardless of whether that anguish was caused directly by her bodily injury or more generally by the accident that caused the bodily injury. However, a passenger cannot recover damages for mental anguish if there is no requisite accident or if the accident does not cause a bodily injury.

The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the district court’s partial-summary-judgment order and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Full text of judgement in case Doe v. Etihad Airways, No. 16-1042 (6th Cir. Aug. 30, 2017) available here>>.

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