Defining “Accidents” in the Air: Why Tort Law Principles Are Essential to Interpret the Montreal Convention’s “Accident” Requirement

By Alexa West

Abstract

Exceptions do not exist in a vacuum; in fact, exceptions to a principle are usually formed and understood using those principles to which they are an exception.  Even so, U.S. courts interpreting the accident requirement of the Montreal Convention—an exception to traditional tort law regarding injuries sustained during international air travel—fail to use tort law in evaluating whether certain situations meet the accident criteria.  Consequentially, many decisions render airlines responsible for a passenger’s injuries where in the same circumstances any other premises owner would not be implicated.  This directly contradicts the intent of the Montreal Convention’s creators, who wanted to limit carrier liability to foster the airline industry’s viability.  Instead of interpreting “accident” to make carriers liable in a narrower set of circumstances and thereby protect airlines, courts are interpreting “accident” in a way that broadens the airlines’ responsibilities.

This Note examines the history of, and the reasons for, the Montreal Convention, which in part forces airlines to indemnify passengers for injuries resulting from “accidents”—a term undefined in the treaty.  The Montreal Convention and the subsequent case law interpreting it demonstrate how, to qualify as an “accident,” the injury-producing incident must be causally connected to the plane’s operation.  Importantly, the causal connection’s adequacy should be evaluated according to American tort jurisprudence even though the accident requirement itself is an exception to general tort law.  This Note focuses on a particular type of injury-producing event, a copassenger tort, because of its interesting causal nature that exemplifies the contrast between decisions using tort law and those rendered under the Convention.