On 19 December 2019, the European Court of Justice published its judgment in Case C-532/18, GN v ZU, on the interpretation of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention. The request for preliminary interpretation had been made in proceedings between GN, represented by her father HM, and ZU, acting as administrator of the insolvency of Niki Luftfahrt GmbH (“Niki Luftfahrt”), an air transport company, concerning a claim for compensation brought by the former on account of scalding suffered because of spilling of a hot beverage on a flight operated by the latter. During a flight between Mallorca (Spain) and Vienna (Austria), HM was served a cup of hot coffee which, while being placed upon the tray table in front of him, tipped over onto his right thigh and onto his daughter GN’s chest, next to whom he was sitting, causing her second-degree scalding. GN, represented for legal purposes by her father, filed a claim against the carrier on the basis of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention seeking that the now insolvent carrier be ordered to pay compensation for the harm caused.

The applicant’s claim for compensation was upheld by the Landesgericht Korneuburg (Regional Court, Korneuburg, Austria), which held that the harm caused to GN stemmed from an accident caused by an unusual event based on an external action. However, the Oberlandesgericht Wien (Higher Regional Court, Vienna, Austria) set aside on appeal the judgment of first instance, holding that article 17 of the Montreal Convention covers only accidents triggered by a hazard typically associated with aviation which, in the instant case, the applicant was unable to prove. GN subsequently brought an appeal on a point of law (Revision) before the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court, Austria; the “referring court”) which, in light of the need to interpret the Montreal Convention, stayed the proceedings and asked the Court of Justice whether, in essence, Article 17(1) of the Montreal convention must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of “accident” used therein covers a situation in which an object used when serving passengers has caused bodily injury to a passenger, without there being the need to examine whether that accident stemmed from a hazard typically associated with aviation.

In answering the question, the Court firstly reminds that, as regards the liability of air carriers for the carriage of passengers and their baggage in the territory of the European Union, Regulation 2027/97 implements the relevant provisions of the Montreal Convention which, as from its entry into force, constitutes an integral part of the European Union legal order. Accordingly, the Court has full jurisdiction to deliver a preliminary ruling concerning its interpretation. Since the concept of “accident” is not defined anywhere in the Montreal Convention, according to the Court reference must be made to its ordinary meaning, in the light of the context and the object and purpose of that convention.

More particularly, making the carrier’s liability subject to the condition that the damage caused should be due to the materialisation of a hazard typically associated with aviation or to there being a connection between the “accident” and the operation or movement of the aircraft, would not be consistent with the ordinary meaning of that concept referred to in Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention or the objectives pursued thereby. Furthermore, limiting the obligation placed on air carriers to pay compensation solely to accidents related to a hazard typically associated with aviation is not necessary in order to avoid imposing an excessive compensation burden on air carriers, since the Convention itself provides that, in certain circumstances, the carrier may be exonerated from its liability or its obligation to pay compensation may be limited.

Therefore, Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of “accident” within the meaning of that provision covers all situations occurring on board an aircraft in which an object used when serving passengers has caused bodily injury to a passenger, without it being necessary to examine whether those situations stem from a hazard typically associated with aviation.