Accident (legal definition)
According to the Supreme Court, an accident is an injurious situation caused by an “unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger,” and not by “the passenger’s own internal reaction to the usual, normal, and expected operation of the aircraft.”
The need for a precise legal definition arose from language in the Warsaw Convention that stated an airline is liable only when there is bodily harm due to an accident but did not specify what is considered an accident. The Supreme Court ultimately had to decide what criteria determined an accident in the case Air France v. Saks in 1985. In that case, a passenger claimed she received an injury in her ear due to fluctuations in cabin pressure during landing. The verdict was in favor of Air France as the court held that pressure changes were not unexpected or unusual and thus, according to their own definition, was not an injury caused by an accident.
The Third Circuit's definition has nothing to do with negligence or the lack of it, so it would not undermine a proper concern for the elimination of the "due care" defenses accomplished by the Montreal Agreement.
Another case that highlights the breadth of the definition of an “accident” is Husain v. Olympic Airways. In this instance, a passenger who had a severe allergy to secondhand smoke boarded a plane on which cigarette smoking was allowed. Said passenger was seated in a non-smoking section, but the people near him began to smoke. Their smoking irritated his condition, and he asked the flight attendant if he could switch seats to be farther from the smoking section. The flight attendant denied his request, and hours later, due to his exposure and apparent anaphylactic reaction to the secondhand smoke, the passenger died.
The Supreme Court weighed many factors: the airline taking notice of the victim’s condition, the fact that there were open seats he could have been moved to, and the flight attendant’s refusal to reseat the victim. Together these actions were considered a chain of causes that led to an unusual and unexpected event. Since an injured passenger is only required to prove that at least one link in the chain of causes was an unusual or unexpected event external to the passenger, the Supreme Court ruled the victim’s death was caused by an accident.
Husain stands for the proposition that an omission to act may constitute a Warsaw or Montreal Convention “accident.” The failure to respond to the emergency is the unusual or unexpected event external to a passenger.
In fact, the Supreme Court cited Air France v. Saks as the basis for its decision. These rulings have gone on to inform other cases including Watts v. American Airlines in which the court found that while the plaintiff’s in-flight medical emergency was not an accident, the airline’s alleged failure to properly respond to it could constitute an accident. Furthermore, similar to Husain, rulings in the case of In re Deep Vein Thrombosis Litigation have shown courts are willing to state that situations such as flight delays and an airline’s unwillingness to move passengers complaining of cramped seating — that is, situations that are directly related to the development of blood clots in one’s legs — could also be ruled as accidents.
An injured passenger is only required to prove that at least one link in the chain of causes was an unusual or unexpected event.
While it may appear what can be considered an accident is potentially rather broad and can encompass a wide range of events, proving there was an accident is only the first step in any aviation litigation. Partner Justin Green and of counsel Steven Pounian have written an article highlighting the fact that even in cases where it is clear an accident has occurred, such as airplane and helicopter crashes, there can be a myriad of challenges in general aviation accident litigation that can impede a case, requiring experienced attorneys to navigate the suit.