High court limits rights of passengers filing suits

April 18, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- International air travelers who suffer emotional injury during hijacking or other airborne incidents may not sue the airlines for damages, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday.

Airlines are legally obliged by world treaty only to pay for physical injury or death to passengers during international flights, the court declared. It turned aside psychic injury claims by passengers on an Eastern Airlines flight that nearly ditched in the Atlantic Ocean eight years ago.

The decision conflicts with a ruling by Israel's Supreme Court interpreting the same treaty to assure protection against such purely emotional injuries as fright and shock.

In a second legal defeat for travelers yesterday, the Supreme Court here ruled 7-2 that passengers on ocean cruises may be forced -- by the fine print on their tickets -- to go to courts far away from their home states to sue a cruise line for harm suffered while on board.

That ruling rejected the claim of a Washington state couple that they should be allowed to sue in federal court in their own state because they could not afford to go to Florida to sue a cruise line over the woman's injury, which she suffered during a shipboard fall.

Their ticket -- typical for cruise line passage -- specified in fine print on the back that any lawsuits against the cruise company had to be pursued in a specified state, Florida in this instance.

The court's ruling on psychic "trauma" in international flights settled a controversy that has continued for years among aviation lawyers. Lower courts had split on whether the Warsaw Convention, a treaty dating from 1929, protects global travelers from emotional injuries -- unrelated to any physical harm -- during an in-flight incident.

The Warsaw Convention applies to nearly all international flights and to any international flight that starts, stops or passes through the United States. If a passenger's injury or death comes under the treaty, the airline may be sued for up to $75,000 per person.

When an airline flies purely domestic routes between U.S. cities, its legal obligations toward passengers hurt or killed are governed by state law. Apparently, few states' laws allow passengers to sue for emotional injury.

The court, going over the background of the Warsaw treaty at the time it was written and its history since, and applying its official French translation, ruled that those who wrote the treaty never intended it to apply to anything beyond physical injury or death.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, who wrote the decision, noted that international airlines are strictly liable for any harm to passengers when that harm is covered by the treaty, so that mental injuries should be considered covered only if that were very clearly intended. The court found that it was not.

The decision came in the case of Eastern Airlines vs. Floyd (No. 89-1598).

The court's separate ruling on cruise line passengers involved the enforceability under federal law of passenger ticket forms specifying a single state's courts as the forum for any disputes resulting from an ocean liner trip.

The court said that it makes no difference legally whether passengers had a real chance to bargain over such a requirement before they bought the ticket. As long as the passengers got some notice of the restriction, and were not pressured or misled into accepting it, such a clause is valid, it concluded.

The cases

The near-crash into the ocean of an airline flight from Miami, bound for the Bahamas, almost eight years ago led to the lawsuit the Supreme Court considered yesterday in its ruling on passengers' legal rights.

Soon after takeoff, one of the plane's engines stopped, and the crew turned the aircraft around to go back to Miami. The two other engines suddenly failed, too, and the crew announced that the plane would be ditched into the Atlantic. But as the plane fell, the crew restarted an engine and flew the plane safely back to Miami.

A series of 25 lawsuits was filed by passengers claiming emotional injury. Those claims are barred by the new decision.

The court's second ruling on passengers' legal rights involved Eulala Shute of Arlington, Wash., and her husband, Russell. During a seven-day cruise to Mexico on the liner Tropicale, Mrs. Shute fell while on a guided tour of the ship's kitchen.

The Shutes then sought to sue the cruise line, Carnival, in federal court in Washington state. Lower courts said they could, despite a fine-print clause on their tickets saying that any such lawsuit had to be filed in Florida courts. The Supreme Court disagreed.

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