In a claim for damages for personal injury arising from an event on the defendant airline, the Court of Justice for the European Union found that, for the purposes of Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, an accident can be an unforeseen, harmful, and involuntary series of intrinsically linked events taking place successively, without interruption, in space and time.

An Australian passenger who was travelling from Tel Aviv to Vienna as a passenger on a flight operated by the defendant airline was scalded when a jug of hot coffee fell from the catering trolley. First aid was administered to him on board the aircraft. He claimed damages in the Australian courts alleging that the inadequate first aid on board the aircraft had aggravated his injuries and loss. The airline relied on the Montreal Convention saying that both the scalding and the first aid administered were the “accident” and the Montreal Convention precluded a separate civil claim. Article 17(1) limits the airlines to specific strict liability “upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking”.

The CJEU found that the Montreal Convention, by restricting the concept of “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) to a series of intrinsically linked events that take place successively and without interruption in space and time, enables passengers to be compensated easily and swiftly, yet without imposing a very heavy compensation burden on air carriers, which would be difficult to determine and to calculate, and would be liable to undermine, and even paralyse, the economic activity of those carriers.

As regards an “accident”, the court pointed out that it is not always possible to attribute the occurrence of damage to an isolated event where that damage is the result of a series of interdependent events with a causal link between those events. In this case there was a causal link between the jug of coffee falling and the aggravation of the bodily injuries caused by it when inadequate first aid was administered. There was a single accident causing all the injury that took place on board the aircraft.

The concept of “accident” in the Montreal Convention does not require that the damage be due to the materialisation of a hazard typically associated with aviation or that there be a connection between the accident and the movement of the aircraft.

[DB v Australia Airlines AG case C-510/2021 Court of Justice of the European Union (6 July 2023)]