The European Union’s highest court has held that airlines are responsible for scalding caused by hot coffee tipped over for “unknown reasons” unrelated to turbulence or flight attendant negligence.
A six-year-old girl is at the heart of the lawsuit. On a (now defunct) Niki flight from Palma de Mallorca (PMI) to Vienna (VIE), hot coffee was served to her father. For “unknown” reasons, the coffee spilled on the girl, causing second degree burns on her chest. She sought 8,500EUR in medical expenses.
Niki argued it was not responsible for the spill, because the accident was outside the meaning of the definition in the Montreal Convention, the agreement that regulates compensation for air-related accidents.
Noting that “serving hot drinks without a cover is common practice and socially appropriate,” a regional court in Austria held for the girl. But an intermediate court overturned the decision, setting up an appeal to the Oberster Gerichtshof or Supreme Court of Justice in Austria.
Unsure of how to proceed, the Supreme Court of Justice asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for an advisory opinion to this question:
Where a cup of hot coffee, which is placed on the tray table of the seat in front of a person in an aircraft in flight, for unknown reasons slides and tips over, causing a passenger to suffer scalding, does this constitute an “accident” triggering a carrier’s liability within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention.
ECJ Rules Airlines Are Responsible For “Unknown” Coffee Spills
The cause of the accident could not be determined. As the ECJ said:
“It could not be established whether the cup of coffee tipped over due to a defect in the folding tray table on which it was placed or due to vibration of the aircraft.”
Or maybe the father tipped it over accidentally…?
In the end, the ECJ held:
“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.”
However, while “unknown” reasons like “vibrations” or a defective tray table may trigger compensation, contributory negligence by the passenger would exonerate an airline from liability:
“If the carrier proves that the damage was caused or contributed to by the negligence or other wrongful act or omission of the passenger, the carrier is to be wholly or partly exonerated from its liability to that passenger.”
In the world of torts, “innocent until proven guilty” becomes “guilty until proven innocence”. I think we can all appreciate the intent of the court but also the inherent problem in this ruling. A passenger should not be denied compensation if the tray table breaks. But this ruling invites people to lie if they spill coffee on themselves. In a sense, the ruling depends upon people being honest. That’s a dangerous gamble…