María Eugenia Paz Alonso filed a lawsuit against Qatar Airways, requesting compensation for moral damages and expenses allegedly incurred following the delay and cancellation of a flight from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires.
Alonso's claim was based on an alleged lack of:
- ground assistance;
- food and drink provisions;
- luggage delivery during the delay and cancellation period; and
- endorsement of a ticket to another airline.
Alonso also alleged that due to the flight's cancellation, she had arrived in Buenos Aires 24 hours later than originally planned and had incurred moral damages as a result.
Alonso claimed compensation for moral damage and expenses under:
- the Constitution;
- the Consumer Defense Law 24,240;
- the Aeronautical Code;
- the Civil Code;
- the Warsaw Convention; and
- the Montreal Convention.
Qatar Airways affirmed that the planned flight route had been Doha (Qatar) to Buenos Aires, with a stopover in Sao Paulo. However, the second flight had been cancelled after the aircraft's fuselage was struck by lightning during landing at Sao Paulo Airport (Guarulhos).
Qatar Airways provided the court with:
- a meteorological report detailing the weather conditions at Sao Paulo Airport during the landing; and
- a maintenance report detailing the need to cancel the remainder of the flight.
Qatar Airways also proved to the court that the aircraft's captain had reported the accident and the damage to maintenance services which had, after an exhaustive inspection, determined that there was damage not only to the paint but also to the structure of the fuselage.
According to the Qatar Airways operation manual, the aircraft's condition had prevented it from continuing the flight safely: 32 holes were detected in the fuselage (two of which were of such magnitude that they would have prevented the aircraft from flying). Maintenance work had been performed uninterruptedly and the aircraft was released from service for 23.5 hours.
Qatar Airways proved that Alonso had been immediately reassigned to the next available flight operated by the airline, which had arrived at Buenos Aires 24 hours later than the original arrival time.
Qatar Airways held that it was not responsible for Alonso's late arrival because the delay had been the result of a fortuitous event and force majeure. Further, the airline questioned the origin and amount of the compensation claimed by Alonso, and invoked the limits of responsibility provided for under the Montreal Convention.
In its decision, the first-instance court reasoned as follows:
- Carriers' commitment to travel at certain times implies a duty of extreme diligence to respect the terms of their offer and such a commitment is essential to those who use their services.
- Commercial activity (in the case of transport) may not disregard users' rights in such a way that if an air carrier promises transport at a certain scheduled time, passengers are entitled to receive the scheduled service as paid for.
- In this case, the cancellation of the flight was exclusively attributable to the airline because the lighting impact could be considered neither a fortuitous event nor force majeure. The airline had invoked force majeure but had not proven it (Article 1068 of the Civil Code (in force at the time of the event)). The court considered the absence of proof over and above the airline's reports, which had been provided as documentary evidence.
The court declared that the airline had breached its transport contract and the obligations to its passengers. The court concluded the following:
- Alonso should be compensated for moral damage due to:
- the cancellation and subsequent rescheduling of the flight;
- her long-term stay at the airport; and
- as a corollary, the delay in getting home.
- The loss of peace of mind did not require specific proof on the part of the plaintiff because losses of this kind are an immediate and necessary consequence of an airline having breached its contract, which leaves passengers inexorably subject to the decision-making power of the non-compliant party to the contract.
- Regarding Alonso's request for expenses which she could not justify (eg, food and drink at the airport), the evidentiary difficulty relating to such expenses – which were the result of the flight's cancellation and subsequent rescheduling – is indisputable (ie, losses incurred during the one-day delay were the direct result of the incident).
The court ordered Qatar Airways to pay Alonso Ps13,000 (approximately $350) plus interest, in addition to costs incurred since the incident. Qatar Airways was denied an appeal before the Federal Civil and Commercial Court of Appeals because the amount was below the appeal threshold set by the Procedures Code.
For further information on this topic please contact Elizabeth Mireya Freidenberg at Freidenberg Freidenberg & Lifsic by telephone (+54 11 4311 4991) or email ([email protected]).