The Montreal Convention, which governs claims for injuries sustained on many international flights, prohibits recovery for purely mental injuries. A passenger only may recover for mental injuries if he or she also sustained a bodily injury. The United States District Court for the Northern District of California recently rejected a passenger's attempt to link a minor physical injury to his alleged mental injury in order to allow him to attempt to recover for the alleged mental distress.
During a United Airlines flight from Chicago to London, a crack developed in the outer layer (but not the inner layer) of the cockpit windshield. The pilots diverted to and safely landed in Goose Bay, Canada. The plaintiff alleged that, as a result of the incident, he experienced terrifying mental distress – and also a back injury. Plaintiff alleged that during the diversion, the flight descended rapidly, causing a minor injury to his lower back. The injury was so minor, in fact, that plaintiff did not report it at the time, continued on his vacation during which he participated in physically demanding activities, and sought no medical attention until, ten months after the flight and four days before his deposition, he saw a physiatrist at the recommendation of his lawyer. The physiatrist ordered an MRI, which showed a disc tear and bulge.
On United's motion for summary judgment, the Court observed that, other than his own subjective observation, plaintiff offered no evidence that the flight descended rapidly. United, on the other hand, offered the testimony of the pilots, who explained that the aircraft descended at a typical rate and that autopilot controlled the aircraft for much of the descent. United also presented the reports of experts, who examined flight data and opined that the descent and landing were routine. Therefore, the Court concluded, plaintiff had failed to establish a genuine dispute of material fact as to the "linchpin of his causation theory" – namely, that the aircraft descended rapidly.
Even if the plaintiff had presented evidence that the flight descended more quickly than normal, the plaintiff still would have lacked evidence that the descent caused his alleged back injury. The plaintiff attempted to establish causation through his medical expert, who concluded that, because plaintiff's back soreness manifested itself shortly after the unscheduled descent, it was more likely than not that the descent caused the back injury. The expert also claimed that the rate of descent did not matter because even a normal descent could have caused the plaintiff's injury. According to the medical expert, "a disc bulge 'can be caused by something as minimal as coughing or sneezing.'"
The Court excluded the opinion of plaintiff's expert on the grounds that it was impermissibly speculative and, at best, established a correlation between the decent and the back injury, not causation. Having failed to develop any admissible evidence that the descent caused his alleged bodily injury, plaintiff could not recover for his alleged mental injuries. Therefore, the Court granted United's motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff lacked any evidence of an injury for which he could seek compensation under the Montreal Convention. Liaw v. United Airlines, Inc., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 204492 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 22, 2019).
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