Olympic Airways vs. Husain

Sterns & Walker recently won a landmark passengers’ rights case before the United States Supreme Court involving the death of a passenger aboard an Olympic Airways flight due to exposure to second-hand smoke.

This case involved an asthmatic California doctor returning home on an Olympic Airways flight from a vacation in Egypt and Greece. The family had requested non-smoking seats as far away as possible from the smoking section due to the doctor’s condition.  The airline assured them that the seats were such, but when they got on the airplane, they found that they were seated directly in front of the smoking section.  Although the family requested three different times to be moved or otherwise accommodated, airline staff ignored their pleas.  The family was told that the flight was full and the doctor could not be moved.  However, the flight was not full, and there were actually 11 unoccupied seats.  Moreover, it turns out that 28 seats on the plane were occupied by Olympic personnel flying free, who could have been moved without disturbing paying passengers.

Unfortunately, exposure to smoke over the flight aggravated the doctor’s asthma, and he died from the exposure in-flight.  The doctor’s wife brought a wrongful death suit in California state court, which was moved by the defendant to federal court, where the plaintiff was awarded $2.8 million in damages.  The defendant airline appealed the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and again to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing it was not liable for the doctor’s death under the Warsaw Convention.

The Warsaw Convention and other international laws and treaties govern the liability of air carriers for death or bodily injury of passengers that are caused by an “accident” that occurs in connection with an international flight.  In Air France v. Saks, the U.S. Supreme Court had previously outlined three conditions for an incident to meet the definition of an “accident” within the meaning of the Warsaw Convention:

An unexpected or unusual event or happening that is:

  1. External to the passenger; and
  2. Not the passenger’s own reaction to the normal operation of the aircraft.

The airline argued that this definition requires something physical to happen, such as a crash or falling baggage, but that in this case nothing happened because the basis of the lawsuit is the airline’s failure to act.  In other words, there was no action, so there could be no “accident.”

The Supreme Court held that the failure of a flight attendant to respond to a demonstrated potential medical emergency violates both the internal airline rules as well as industry standards; therefore it was not part of the normal, expected operation of the aircraft.  Also, this failure was unexpected and external from the passenger’s point of view.  Therefore, the “negative action” of the flight attendant did qualify the incident as an accident within the purview of the Warsaw Convention.

This case was extremely important to the field of international transportation law because the high court in Britain had previously held exactly the opposite, i.e., the failure of an airline crew to respond to a passenger request was a “non-event” and not an accident.

The results of this case therefore demonstrate how important it is to select the right court to hear your case.  Often, the defense will try to move a case or have it dismissed on the grounds that the forum chosen is not the most convenient for the case (forum non conveniens).  Such motions should be vigorously opposed by the plaintiff.

Sterns & Walker is pleased to have argued successfully at three different levels of federal court, obtaining a landmark decision with global implications before the United States Supreme Court.  Even more importantly, our attorneys are glad to have obtained and safeguarded a significant verdict for our client.

For assistance in a trial or appeal in an aviation accident case that occurs at home or abroad, contact the Law Offices of Sterns & Walker today.