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The Montreal Convention – Part I (Damages for Death and Injury)

Posted by bvalaw on June 17, 2014

The Montreal Convention is a multi-national treaty that governs the rights of passengers aboard international flights where the country of origin and the country of destination are both signatories to the treaty. Most developed (and many lesser developed) countries have signed the Montreal Convention, so it is applicable to the vast majority of international flights. As a treaty, the Montreal Convention is honored by U.S. Courts.

When applicable, the Montreal Convention applies to all carriage of persons, baggage or cargo by aircraft. This blog will address the rights of those injured or killed on a flight to which the Montreal Convention applies. A second blog, later this week, will address rights with respect to baggage and cargo.

The Montreal Convention has a two-tiered system for damages arising from injury or death while aboard an international flight. In the first tier, an airline is automatically liable for proven damages up to 113,100 Special Drawing Rights (“SDRs”). An SDR is sort of a pretend currency established and managed by the International Monetary Fund to be used as a common benchmark in certain international transactions. As of now, the value of 113,100 SDRs is about U.S. $175,000.

Thus, if someone is injured or killed aboard a flight covered by the Montreal Convention, the airline will automatically owe each passenger some amount of money up to about $175,000, depending on the amount of damages that the passenger can prove. And, the airline cannot put that obligation off on anyone else, even if the accident or incident was caused by some entity other than the airline. In legal terms, the airline is strictly liable for that amount. Of course, the airline can try and recover the money it has to pay from the entity that actually caused the accident (if that is the case), but that it a topic for another day.

The second tier of damages under the Montreal Convention applies when a passenger’s provable damages exceed 113,100 SDRs. In such cases, the carrier can limit its liability above 113,100 SDRs, but only if it can prove: (1) that the damages were not caused by the airline’s negligence; or (2) that the damages were solely due to the negligence of some other party.

Obviously, if an airline has proven the second of these conditions, it has also proven the first. In other words, if some entity other than the airline is solely responsible for an accident, then the airline cannot also be responsible. But the first condition, standing alone, would be for things such as acts of god or acts of war, or some circumstance where no one was negligent. In any event, under the second tier, the airline will be responsible for the full, unlimited amount of damages caused by an accident unless it can show that it was not negligent or that some other entity was completely responsible.