Although the Complaint Did Not Plead a Montreal Convention Cause of Action, the Court Found Plaintiff’s Claims Were Governed Exclusively by the Convention

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Following the Montreal Convention's "'cardinal' dictate of uniformity," the District Court for the District of Columbia joins numerous other courts to find discrimination claims preempted.
  • The District Court holds disagreements over seat assignments are neither unexpected nor unusual events and an airline's refusal to reassign a passenger's seat is "unequivocally" not an Article 17 accident.  

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted an airline's pre-answer motion to dismiss a passenger's discrimination and breach of contract claims arising from the airline's alleged failure to assign the passenger and his wife an exit row seat.1 Significantly, the court upheld the exclusivity and preemptive effect of the Montreal Convention and dismissed the plaintiff's claims at the first possible procedural instance, holding that his seating dispute did not constitute an Article 17 "accident" under the treaty.

Factual Background

The plaintiff and his wife held tickets for roundtrip travel originating and terminating in Dulles, Virginia with intermediate stops in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan. Upon check-in at the airport, they requested exit row seats so that they could have extra leg room. The airline representative informed the plaintiff and his wife that all exit row seats had been assigned already and that, in any event, neither the plaintiff nor his wife met the criteria for being assigned to the exit row. However, the representative purportedly promised the plaintiff and his wife an extra "leg space" seat.

During boarding, the plaintiff noticed that the exit row seats were occupied by passengers of Turkish descent, most of whom were women who did not meet the criteria outlined by the airline representative for being assigned to the exit row. Additionally, the plaintiff's seat did not have extra "leg space" as allegedly promised. The plaintiff asserted that he became extremely distressed, which caused him general malaise and a loss of appetite. His distress intensified due to the airline crew's purported failure to adhere to certain safety protocols during flight.

The plaintiff sued the airline in state court for breach of contract and discrimination under a plethora of federal discrimination statutes. The airline removed the case to federal court and moved to dismiss on the basis that the Montreal Convention preempts and provides the exclusive cause of action for all of the plaintiff's claims, and that the plaintiff cannot state a claim for relief under the Convention.

Treaty Governs Discrimination and Contract Claims

Because the complaint did not plead a Montreal Convention cause of action, the District Court analyzed whether the Convention applied to the plaintiff's claims. Recognizing that the treaty governs "all claims arising from 'international carriage,'" the court concluded that the plaintiff's roundtrip journey from the United States with stops in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan fell "within this ambit."

The court next considered whether the plaintiff's discrimination and breach of contract claims fell within the substantive scope of the treaty's liability provisions and, thus, would be preempted. With respect to the federal discrimination claims, the court followed the treaty's "'cardinal' dictate of uniformity" and agreed with "numerous courts" that have found similar discrimination claims preempted.2 As to the contract claim, the court noted a split in authority involving claims based on contractual nonperformance;3 however, the plaintiff's breach of contract claim was premised upon the same allegations as his discrimination claims and, in essence, was nothing more than "a tort masquerading as a contractual dispute." Thus, the court ultimately found "the pro-preemption line of cases persuasive in this context."

Plaintiff's Claims Dismissed with Prejudice

Finding all of the plaintiff's claims preempted, the court then addressed whether the plaintiff could state a cognizable Article 17 cause of action under the treaty and concluded he could not. First, disputes over airline seat assignments are not "unexpected nor unusual" and "an airline's refusal to reassign a passenger's seat is unequivocally not an Article 17 accident." Second, long-standing treaty precedent bars claims like the plaintiff's that seek recovery for standalone emotional distress injuries and physical manifestations of such mental injuries (e.g., appetite loss). Although the plaintiff's flight experience may have been impacted, he could not establish an Article 17 cause of action and the court accordingly dismissed all claims with prejudice.