Air transport. The Court of Justice rules on the passenger’s bodily injuries aggravated by first aid administered following an accident that took place on board an aircraft

On 6 July 2023, the Court of Justice handed down its judgment in Case C‑510/21, DB v Austrian Airlines AG, on the interpretation of Article 17(1) and Articles 29 and 35 of the Montreal Convention. The request has been made in proceedings between DB and Austrian Airlines AG (“Australian Airlines”) concerning a claim brought by the first concerning the compensation for damage caused by the first aid administered to him on board an aircraft during a flight operated by that carrier.

During the flight from Tel-Aviv to Vienna operated by Austrian Airlines, a jug containing hot coffee fell from the catering trolley used for serving passengers and scalded DB, who received first aid on board the aircraft. On 31 May 2019, however, DB brought an action before the Handelsgericht Wien (Commercial Court of Vienna) against Austrian Airlines seeking, first, compensation by way of damages and, secondly, a declaration establishing that air carrier’s liability for all future damage resulting from the aggravation of his burns on account of the inadequate first aid administered on board the aircraft. Since his action was dismissed both in first and second instance, DB brought an appeal on a point of law before the Oberster Gerichtshof (Austrian Supreme Court; the “referring court”) which, in light of the need to interpret the relevant European legislation, decided to stay the proceedings and to refer to the Court of Justice two questions for a preliminary ruling.

By the first question, the referring court asked whether Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention must be interpreted as meaning that the inadequate first aid administered on board an aircraft to a passenger, which aggravated the bodily injuries caused by an “accident”, within the meaning of that provision, must be regarded as forming part of that accident.

According to the Court, the concept of “accident” must be understood as an unforeseen, harmful and involuntary event which does not require that the damage be due to the materialisation of an hazard typically associated with aviation or that there be a connection between the accident and the operation or movement of the aircraft. Furthermore, where the damage is the result of a series of interdependent events, it is not always possible to attribute its occurrence to an isolated event. Where there is a series of intrinsically linked events that take place successively, without interruption, in space and time, therefore, that series must be regarded as constituting a single accident within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention.

Since it was referred only in the event that the first question is answered in the negative, the Court deemed it unnecessary to examine the second question, by which the referring court asked whether Article 29 of the Montreal Convention precludes a claim for compensation for damage caused by the administration of first aid where that claim is brought within the limitation period under national law but outside the one for bringing actions laid down in Article 35 of that convention.

Marco Stillo