The Montreal Convention
The Montreal Convention, officially known as the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, is an international treaty adopted in 1999 by nearly 200 nation states. Along with other sources of law, it governs litigation between airlines and victims of air disasters. If you or your loved one has been involved in an air disaster such as a plane crash, the Montreal Convention is likely to affect your claim for compensation.
An airline is strictly liable for claims of compensation not exceeding 113,100 Special Drawing Rights (about $175,000). Strict liability means that once you prove damages, you don’t have to prove that the airline was at fault for the disaster. If your damages exceed 113,100 Special Drawing Rights, you still don’t have to prove that the airline was negligent – instead, the airline must prove that it wasn’t negligent (often an impossible task) or that the disaster was caused by the negligence of a third party such as the aircraft manufacturer.
The airline industry is one of the world’s truly international industries. Suppose, for example, that a planeload of Canadians goes down in international waters, the plane was owned and operated by a Spanish airline, and it was en route from London to New York at the time of the crash. Relatives of the victims wish to file wrongful death lawsuits against the Spanish airline. Where should they file their lawsuits, and which jurisdiction’s law applies?
According to the Montreal Convention, the plaintiffs can sue in any of the following jurisdictions:
- The airline’s domicile (where it was incorporated, in this case Spain)
- The location of the airline’s principal place of business, if different from its legal domicile
- The place where the ticket was bought (which can result in legal complications if the ticket was bought online)
- The final destination appearing on the ticket (New York in this case)
- The place of the passenger’s permanent residence (somewhere in Canada, depending on the passenger).
Most courts apply either the “most significant relationship test” or the “governmental interest analysis” to determine which jurisdiction’s law applies to the lawsuit. Although it may seem obvious that a close relative suing for wrongful death would choose the convenience of suing in the victim’s home jurisdiction (if the plaintiff was the live-in spouse of the victim, for example), this is not always so. If the applicable law turns out to be the law of the place where the lawsuit is filed (which may or may not be the case), and if the law of another jurisdiction is more generous with respect to available damages, the plaintiff might benefit from filing a lawsuit in a faraway jurisdiction despite the inconvenience involved.
Product Liability Law
In a product liability lawsuit, you will generally claim that the aircraft manufacturer or designer produced a defective product (a component of the aircraft such as the landing gear or the fuel line, for example) that caused the disaster. The Montreal Convention does not apply to product liability lawsuits because it is designed to govern lawsuits in which the airline is the defendant. This means that merely proving that the air disaster caused you damages is not enough to establish liability – you will have to prove that the aircraft or its component was defective and unreasonably dangerous in order to win.
Handling the legal issues arising from an air disaster is no job for a novice. Instead, a potential plaintiff should contact an experienced plane crash lawyer.