Hot Coffee in the Air: What Happens When You’re Injured in Flight

In 2018, there were over 4.3 billion passengers worldwide on commercial airlines and over 100,000 flights per day. That’s a lot of people in the air trusting airlines to get them safely from one place to another!

Airlines are responsible for ensuring that passengers are safe from preventable injuries and they may be at least partially responsible for injuries caused by defects in an airplane itself. They are required to do all that is reasonable under the circumstances to prevent unnecessary injuries from occurring, but an injury in and of itself is not enough to prove that the airline was negligent.

They are typically not liable for consequences from an inevitable accident or occurrence that was completely unforeseeable, such as unexpected weather or violent passengers. Such things are often considered “Acts of God,” and the law generally does not hold Defendants responsible for things that are outside of their control. There must be some proof that the airline was at fault in order for the injured passenger to prevail and receive reimbursement for their losses. In the case of one of our recent clients, we were able to prove that the airline was at fault for her injuries.

On a return flight to Dulles International Airport (IAD), our client’s broken tray table caused a cup of scalding liquid to slide off and fall onto her lap, resulting in severe and painful burns. There was no doctor on board at the time, so the cabin crew was only able to offer her over the counter pain relief medicine, cream and gauze. After unhelpful attempts to treat her injuries, she was told to return to the same seat in her wet clothes. Upon landing, she was met by paramedics and at the hospital she was diagnosed with both second and third-degree burns.

The depth of her physical pain, emotional turmoil and treatments did not end there, even after several years she continues to experience daily pain and discomfort. She cannot  even expose the injured part of her body to the sun and remains at risk for other future complications.

Because this passenger was on an international flight, her case came under the Montreal Convention. This is an international treaty, set in place in 1999, that protects international air passengers. Over 100 countries have agreed to its terms, which means that most international flights are covered. The Montreal Convention generally applies to the entire itinerary, even if there are multiple stops, between signatory countries. In other words, the treaty applies even if you were injured going from Washington Reagan National Airport to Los Angeles Airport before heading on to Sydney, Australia. The Abrams Landau law firm gets calls from injured passengers who were hurt during the domestic leg of their trip but who nevertheless come under the protection of the Montreal Convention. For international flyers, the passenger only needs to prove that there was an accident between the time they got on or off the international flight. Once an accident is proven, then the airline faces liability up to an amount specified in the treaty. For those injuries that exceed the set amount, the airline can try to avoid liability by proving the accident was not caused by its negligence (or carelessness) or that the incident was caused solely by the passenger or a third party not under the airlines control. In the boiling liquid case, the airlines tried to put the blame it on the passenger in order to avoid responsibility for her burns, surgeries and medical care.

Under the Montreal Convention, the injured passenger does not have to go back to the place where she was injured, where the airlines headquarters is located or where she bought the ticket. Instead, she can file the case in her home country where she lives, as long as the airline operates passenger service in that country. While she had negotiated a settlement with the airlines on her own, we were able to team up with another experienced airline injury firm with whom we regularly work and get her ten times the amount the insurance company had offered her! The Montreal Convention offers protections for international travelers, so it is important to seek out the assistance of a law firm that regularly helps injured airline passengers if you are hurt during your trip. If you, or someone you care for, has been injured while on a domestic or international flight, and there are questions about what laws apply, please give us a call (703-796-9555) or email us at Abrams Landau, Ltd. International treaties can be complicated and choosing an inexperienced lawyer in this specialized field can lead to failing to get full reimbursement for all of the losses caused by the airline’s unsafe conduct.