The Warsaw Convention is an international treaty created to address issues pertaining to commercial air travel and establish passengers’ rights. It was entered into by several nations in 1929 in Warsaw, Poland.
As the commercial aviation industry was still in its infancy, there were two main concerns. One was the extent of an airline’s liability in the event of an airplane crash. The second was the possibility that an airline could potentially be put out of business by having to pay a large amount in damage recovery due to their civil liability.
Based on those concerns, the treaty sought to govern the liability of the airline to any passenger who was physically injured in an accident. It is very specific about the extent of liability stating that only in cases of bodily injury and only when an accident occurs will an airline be liable.
"The principle of limitation of liability would lessen litigation and prove an aid in the development of international air transportation"
This specificity can create lapses in liability. In the case of El Al v. Tseng (1999), the plaintiff claimed psychic an emotional injuries following an intrusive search by the airline’s security. The Supreme Court decided the Warsaw Convention did not cover non-physical injuries and, thus, the airline could not be held liable.
The treaty also limits the amount of damages a passenger can recover except in cases where the carrier is proven to be guilty of willful misconduct. On top of those limitations, there are no punitive damages, only compensatory damages, under the Warsaw Convention.
It sets forth four choices of jurisdiction available to plaintiffs:
- The domicile of the carrier
- The principal place of business of the carrier
- Where the passenger purchased the ticket
- The passenger’s final destination
The Warsaw Convention also establishes a two-year limitation period. This time limit is not a statute of limitations. It stipulates that all plaintiffs have exactly two years from the date of the incident to file suit. If no suit is filed within that time, then under no circumstances can an airline be held liable for that particular offence.
The United States did not initially ratify the Warsaw Convention as it considered the liability limit too low. It was not until years later that the State Department considered the benefits, despite the potentially negative effects it may have had on accident victims an their families, stating, “the principle of limitation of liability would lessen litigation and prove an aid in the development of international air transportation.” The U.S. eventually became a signatory in 1934.