Year in Review: Airline Liability for “Bumping”

In July 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit released a ruling in the case of Campbell v. Air Jamaica Ltd.  This decision confirmed that a passenger can only recover expenses arising from delay after being “bumped” from a scheduled international flight.

Mr. Campbell, despite being checked-in and issued a boarding pass, was bumped from his flight on to a flight departing the next day.  In addition, he was charged a $150 change fee.  He sued the airline for damages stemming from the bumping, which also allegedly contributed to him suffering a heart attack.  Mr. Campbell claimed that as a result of his bumping and refusal of hotel accommodations, he was forced to sleep outside the terminal building.  Because of adverse weather, he became ill and later suffered a heart attack.

The Montreal Convention is an international treaty that governs air carriers’ legal liability to passengers travelling on most international flights.  Article 19 of the Convention provides for limited recovery of economic damages caused by flight delay, but not for emotional loss or physical injury.  Therefore, the Court of Appeal awarded Mr. Campbell $150 in compensation for the change fee he paid, but found the balance of his claims were unrecoverable under this provision.

Mr. Campbell also sought recovery under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, which provides for recovery of damages resulting from physical injury or death of a passenger were caused by an “accident”.  An accident has been defined in case law as an unusual or unexpected event or happening that is external to the passenger.

When considering the practice of bumping, the Court of Appeal ruled that this practice does not amount to an Article 17 accident.  The Court noted that while bumping may be unpleasant, it is widely practiced, widely known, and there is nothing accidental about it.

This decision reinforces the parameters of recovery under the Montreal Convention and the limits of recovery for an “accident” and “delay” thereunder.