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June 1st 2021

Accidents & Illness Abroad

Montreal Convention: Know your rights if you suffer an accident on a plane

Anne Thomson

Anne Thomson

Litigation Executive, Travel

Montreal Convention: Know your rights if you suffer an accident on a plane

As people start to fly again in greater numbers, UK travellers are returning to the skies under a different landscape than when they previously flew… and so it is more important than ever to know your rights when it comes to suffering an accident on an aeroplane.

As people start to fly again in greater numbers, UK travellers are returning to the skies under a different landscape than when they previously flew… and so it is more important than ever to know your rights when it comes to suffering an accident on an aeroplane.

With people taking the plunge to jet off during the half-term and summer school holidays, knowing what the Montreal Convention is and what your rights are in the event of an accident can be crucial.

UK holidaymakers are now able to travel to a green list of countries after 15 months of massive disruption for the airline industry – with operators carrying 75 per cent fewer passengers in 2020, according to the Civil Aviation Authority.

But airlines have had to adapt to a changing world brought by the impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic and this will lead to some passengers feeling more wary than ever about safety onboard an aircraft – with coronavirus measures to also now consider when it comes to the extra precautions taken by an airline during a flight.

But even with the extra layer of safety measures that airlines are putting in place, accidents can still occur onboard an aircraft and it is important to know the facts if you or a loved one are injured.

How do you know if an accident is just an accident or whether you can make a claim?

This isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. Airline travel is governed by the Montreal Convention, which imposes a form of strict liability on airlines when it comes to death or personal injury during a flight or when in the process of embarking or disembarking.  What this means is that you do not necessarily have to prove fault.  However, the person making a claim for damages must establish that there has been an accident.

Without wishing to bog you down in all the legal terminology here, a section of the Convention known as Article 17 defines whether the ‘accident’ qualifies as an accident. Just because a passenger suffers an accident in the sense understood in English does not necessarily mean that the accident is an accident as defined in Article 17.

To be a qualifying accident under the Convention, there must be an ‘unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger’.

The key message to get across here is that in-flight accidents can be very complex and you should seek advice from an expert solicitor to help steer you in the right direction.

Does the Montreal Convention only cover accidents onboard the aircraft?

The answer here is no, however once again this is not straightforward. The Convention does not just include incidents or accidents on aeroplanes. It also covers accidents which occur in the course of embarking or disembarking.

The reason this is not always straightforward is that if an incident occurs in the airport after the passenger has checked in for the flight then, depending on what stage of embarking they are at, this may mean that the airline is responsible.

Examples here can include avoidable slips, trips or falls on the way to the departure gate; accidents involving airport crew or transport; and injury caused by aeroplanes colliding with terminal or docking steps.

Read our in-depth legal explanation of the Montreal Convention here and how the law defines when an accident is actually an accident 

What is the most common in-flight ‘accident’ that can lead to a compensation claim?

One of the most common ‘accidents’ on an aircraft we see are spillages of hot drinks on to a passenger.

Anne Thomson, a Litigation Executive within our expert Travel team, recently worked on one of our numerous Montreal Convention cases involving a hot spillage onboard an aircraft.

The incident occurred in November 2019 when a woman, now 50, was on a Ryanair flight from Birmingham to Bratislava for a weekend break with her husband which was ruined due to the pain she was in following an injury she suffered.

The woman bought a cup of tea from the in-flight service. Cabin crew placed the cup on her tray and almost instantaneously it slipped down the tray and spilt on to her thigh, having never touched the cup herself. She sustained second-degree burns to her left thigh and has been left with pink scarring as a result.

“We advised her about the Montreal Convention when she contacted us,” said Mrs Thomson.

“The defendant denied liability on the basis that the client had spilt the drink on herself, but they did not provide any disclosure. My client is a very credible, intelligent woman and the decision was taken that her version of events would be preferred.

“The client was very unhappy with the treatment she received onboard the aircraft.

“The medical expert commented that the correct first aid for burns is to apply water, not ice. If the burn had been irrigated with water immediately after the injury, or up to 30 minutes after the injury, the burn may have been more superficial.

“She was delighted with the result after the case was settled pre-proceedings and damages of £3,500 were agreed.”

Other examples of hot spillage cases we have covered include:

  • Whilst travelling for a holiday to Australia, one of our clients suffered burns to her forehead and left forearm after a flight attendant tripped and spilt boiling water on her whilst she was asleep. Read the full story here
  • A woman was badly scalded when boiling hot coffee was spilled into her lap and down her leg on an easyJet flight. Read the full story here 

What other in-flight incidents can lead to a claim for damages?

  • An air crash
  • Collision on the runway
  • Items falling from overhead lockers
  • Collapsing seat back
  • A defective seat
  • Cabin crew hitting a passenger’s knee or leg with the food or drinks trolley
  • Slips, trips or falls within the aircraft
  • Incidents on the transfer bus taking passengers from the terminal building to the aircraft and vice versa

Incidents which are not classed as ‘accidents’ include:

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
  • Perforated eardrum resulting from normal decompression
  • Injuries caused by ‘hard landings’ if the ‘hard landing’ is within normal range

Here are a few other specific examples of cases we have highlighted on our site:

  • A 70-year-old holidaymaker was awarded £10,000 damages after being thrown from her seat when travelling on a minibus transporting passengers from the airport to board the plane. Read the full story here
  • A passenger onboard a British Airways flight from Philadelphia to London Heathrow suffered tendon damage to his knee when an air stewardess mistakenly pushed a drinks trolley into his leg. Read the full story here
  • We secured damages for a woman who suffered a string of injuries due to the actions of another passenger who lashed out aggressively a number of times throughout the flight when travelling from Gambia to London Gatwick. Read the full story here 

How can Hudgell Solicitors help with a case relating to the Montreal Convention?

If you’ve suffered injuries in an accident onboard an aircraft, our specialist travel solicitors may be able to help you make a no win, no fee compensation claim for the injuries and trauma you’ve suffered.

Before accepting your case, we’ll provide a free consultation to ascertain who was responsible, if the airline has a case to answer and whether the injury has been caused by an ‘accident’ as defined by the Montreal Convention.

We explain the claims process to the client and prepare a letter of claim to the airline, who then has a period of six months from the date of their acknowledgment of the letter in which to carry out its investigations and come back to us with its decision as to whether liability is admitted or denied.

We would further explain to the client that we will need to instruct a medical expert and arrange an appointment for the client to be seen by the expert. The expert would then prepare what is called a medico-legal report, which enables us to value the claim for the injury.

If liability is denied and if we considered the prospects of success to be over 50 per cent, then a report is required for issuing court proceedings.

When calculating how much your claim is worth, we’ll look closely at the following:

  • The severity of your physical injuries
  • The psychological impact of the accident
  • Your past, present and future loss of earnings for taking time off work
  • Your ongoing medical requirements
  • Mobility aids and modifications to your home
  • Any care and case management needs
  • Other financial loss

To benefit from a free, no obligation discussion about your case, contact us today.

Is there a time limit for making a claim?

It is important to note that under the Montreal Convention, you normally have up to two years to bring a claim from the date of disembarking the aircraft.

If a case does not settle and court proceedings have to be issued, the claim has to be issued within a period of two years otherwise the right to compensation is extinguished. This is absolute, no exceptions. This includes minors as well.

Therefore, it is important for a person who is thinking of making a claim for an in-flight accident to act quickly.

Find out more about how we can help if you get injured or ill abroad here

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