Court urges review of airlines’ liabilities

Posted: 6th March 2014

Airliner2The Supreme Court has regretfully dismissed a damages claim brought by a gravely disabled airline passenger who was humiliated by seating arrangements on board a package flight – but has urged reform of international rules which place strict limits on the liabilities of air carriers.

Before flying out to the Greek island of Zante on a flight from East Midlands airport in September 2008, Christopher Stott, who is paralysed from the shoulders down, twice telephoned Thomas Cook Tour Operators Limited to ensure that his wife would be seated next to him both on the outward and return journeys.

But, on the flight home, Mr Stott arrived at the airport to be told that the flight was already filling up, that he and his wife could not sit together and that the seat allocations could not be changed. After boarding the flight, his wheelchair overturned and he tumbled to the cabin floor in full view of other passengers. He felt extremely embarrassed, humiliated and angry.

He was eventually assisted into an aisle seat but, as his wife was seated behind him, she could not help him with his catheterisation, food or movements during the three-and-a-half-hour flight. Thomas Cook's cabin crew ‘apparently made no attempt’ to ease the couple's difficulties and did not ask other passengers to move so that they could sit together.

With the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Mr Stott has since fought a marathon campaign for damages from Thomas Cook, claiming that his treatment amounted to a breach of the Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2007.

His case hit a stumbling block in the form of the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty which, amongst other things, restricts the liability of air carriers to incidents in which passengers die or suffer bodily injury. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal ruled that the terms of the Convention meant that Mr Stott could not be compensated for his injured feelings.

In dismissing his appeal, the Supreme Court rejected arguments that Mr Stott’s claim fell outside the substantive and temporal scope of the Convention. Whilst agreeing that he had been treated in a ‘humiliating and disgraceful manner’, the Court found that the Convention created a comprehensive code with respect to air carriers’ liabilities for physical incidents involving passengers between embarkation and disembarkation.

It made no difference that Mr Stott’s claim was based upon EU disability rights and the Court ruled that his claim fell squarely within the temporal scope of the Convention notwithstanding arguments that the operative causes of his mistreatment began prior to boarding.

In what may be viewed as a moral victory for Mr Stott, Lady Hale noted that she was 'disturbed' that he would receive nothing for the treatment meted out to him and that the terms of the Convention meant that even state air carriers would be able to escape liability in such cases. There was, she said, a respectable view that Mr Stott's treatment amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment banned by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Speaking of the 'grave injustice' done to those in Mr Stott's position, she said that, at the very least, the position should be addressed by the parties to the Convention.