By its judgment of 19 December 2019 in Case C-532/18, the Court of Justice sentenced the airline for the burns caused by the overturning of a hot coffee which for unknown reasons occurred during a flight, specifying that liability does not imply that a flight-related risk has occurred.
In the present case, a minor, and for whom her father, applied to the Austrian airline Niki Luftfahrt GmbH (in liquidation) for compensation under Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention in order to obtain from the carrier (which at the time became insolvent) the order for compensation for the damage caused by the burns suffered because during a flight from Palma de Majorca (Spain) to Vienna (Austria), hot coffee placed on the folding table of the father next door, for unknown reasons, was turned on her, causing her second-degree burns.
The application granted at first instance by the landesgericht korneuburg (Court of the Land Korneuburg) was reformed by the Oberlandesgericht Wien (Higher Court of the Land of Vienna) according to which Article 17 of the Montreal Convention limits its scope exclusively to accidents caused by a risk inherent in air transport, in this case not proved by the applicant.
The applicant had then brought an appeal before the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court, Austrian; “referring court”), which considered that an interpretation of the Convention was necessary, stayed proceedings to request the Court of Justice to clarify the notion of «accident» under the Montreal Convention, which does not contain a precise definition of it.
The reference for a preliminary ruling
The reference for a preliminary ruling shall enable the courts of the Member States, in the context of a dispute before which they are seised, to hear the Court on the interpretation of Union law or on the validity of an act of the Union. The Court does not resolve the national dispute. It is for the national court to resolve the case in accordance with the decision of the Court. This decision also binds the other national courts to which a similar problem is referred.
In the present case, the reference for a preliminary ruling concerns the interpretation of Article 17.1 of the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage concluded in Montreal on 28 May 1999, signed by the European Community on 9 December 1999 and approved on its behalf by Council Decision 2001/539/EC of 5 April 2001 (OJ 2001 L 194, p. 38) (hereinafter «the Montreal Convention»), which entered into force as regards the European Union, on 28 June 2004, and in particular on the interpretation of the notion of «accident».
The Court pointed out that the Montreal Convention was an integral part of the Union system and that the concepts contained therein should be interpreted uniformly and independently.
As regards, in detail, the concept of“accident”, since it is not the subject of any definition in the Montreal Convention, reference should be made to its common sense in the context in which it is situated, In the light of the Convention and the objectives it pursues, the Montreal Convention provides, in fact, for a regime of liability which is largely objective for air carriers, in the right balance of the interests of these and passengers.
According to the Court, to make the carrier’s liability subject to the condition that the damage is due to the materialisation of an air transport risk or to the existence of a link between the “accident” and the use or movement of the aircraft does not conform to the common sense of the concept of “accident”, referred to in Article 17.1 of the Convention, or to the objectives pursued by the Convention.
In the present case, it is clear from the wording of Article 17, paragraph 1 of the Montreal Convention that, in order for liability to arise for the carrier, the event which caused the death or personal injury of the passenger must be qualified as a «accident» and that the latter must have occurred on board the aircraft or in connection with any of the embarkation or disembarkation operations.
Article 17, paragraph 1, of the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage, concluded in Montreal on 28 May 1999, signed by the European Community on 9 December 1999 and approved on its behalf by Council Decision 2001/539/EC, of 5 April 2001, must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of “accident” must cover all situations occurring on board an aircraft in which an object used for the service of passengers has caused personal injury to a passenger, without it being necessary to state whether such situations result from a risk inherent in air transport.