CJEU rules on Montreal Convention coffee spillage case

In 2015, GN, a six-year-old child, was travelling on board an aircraft between Mallorca  and Vienna. Her father, who was sitting next to her, was served a cup of hot coffee which, when it was placed on the tray table in front him, tipped over onto his right thigh and onto GN’s chest, causing her second-degree burns. It could not be established precisely why the cup of coffee overturned.

The Austrian Supreme Court referred to the CJEU the question of whether or not this constituted an “accident” for the purposes of art. 17 of the Montreal Convention (to which the EU is a signatory). In Case C-532/18 GN v ZU, the CJEU determined that it was.

Despite noting that the concepts in the Convention had to be interpreted uniformly and autonomously as between signatories, the CJEU’s judgment is striking for its lack of reference to any of the leading authorities on the interpretation of the Convention.

Not even the leading decision of Air France v Saks 470 US 392 appears in the judgment (although it was cited in the Advocate General’s opinion). The CJEU instead adopted its own interpretation of the term “accident”, which it said was “an unforeseen, harmful and involuntary event.”

The key issue in the case was the carrier’s argument that the concept only covered situations in which a hazard typically associated with aviation materialised:

“That approach requires the materialisation of a hazard arising from the nature, condition or operation of the aircraft, or from an aviation facility used when embarking on or disembarking from the aircraft. Consequently, that would mean that accidents, such as the accident in the main proceedings, which have no connection to aviation activity and which are likely to occur in other circumstances cannot trigger the carrier’s liability, which was the intention of the States Parties to the Montreal Convention.”

This had received some support in certain US decisions (for example, Stone v Continental Airlines, Inc 905 F Supp 823, 827 and Price v British Airways (1992) 23 Av Cas 18, 465) and was also widely supported in German case law. In the English case of Morris v KLM Royal Dutch Airlines [2002] QB 100 the Court of Appeal had disagreed – although it was ultimately unnecessary for the court to decide the point since the event in that case (an assault by a neighbouring passenger) was rendered possible by the characteristic of air travel in requiring passengers to sleep in close proximity to strangers.

In GN v ZU, the CJEU rejected the carrier’s argument. The Montreal Convention liability regime was intended to enable passengers to be compensated easily and swiftly, without imposing a very heavy compensation burden on air carriers. Limiting the obligation on air carriers to pay compensation solely to accidents related to a hazard typically associated with aviation was not consistent with the ordinary meaning of art. 17, nor was it necessary in order to avoid imposing an excessive compensation burden on air carriers.

“In those circumstances, the answer to the question referred is that 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.”

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