A recent case in the Supreme Court has demonstrated that in some circumstances, even though European law can protect disability rights, where it conflicts with international convention, the international convention will prevail, not the European legislation.
The claimant in this case, Mr Stott, had booked with Thomas Cook to fly to Zante and had telephoned their helpline to ask and advise that he paid to sit next to his wife so that she could assist him during the flight. He was assured that they would be seated together. However, when they arrived at check-in, they were told that it would not be possible. Upon boarding the aircraft, Mr Stott's wheelchair overturned but he didn't receive appropriate assistance. He was then seated in front of his wife, which made it difficult for her to assist him. Relying on European law [Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2007] Mr Stott argued that Thomas Cook were in breach of its duty in their efforts to give his wife a seat next to him. The judge accepted that they had breached their duty, but that unfortunately the regulations, which are part of European law, were incompatible with the more powerful International treaty [Montréal Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air 1999}. Consequently, the judge was unable to make an award of damages because the Montréal Convention permits an award of damages, only in very specific and defined circumstances, which would not include this disability discrimination and hurt to his feelings.
Hearing the case, the Supreme Court concluded that the Montréal Convention was indeed the piece of law that trumped all others in respect of an event which occurred on an aircraft, between embarkation and disembarkation, in the course of aviation transport. Once the Montréal Convention is the governing law, the court in England (and Europe) cannot look beyond that to other pieces of legislation, which are not international. To provide a remedy on the basis of current law is impossible. It would need the Convention to be amended.
The Supreme Court held that the claim for damages for failing to properly provide for the needs of the disabled passenger was not envisaged by the convention, but because it occurred in the course of aviation travel, which the convention covers. The convention being intended to deal comprehensively with the liability of the air carrier for anything that physically might happen to passengers between embarkation and disembarkation, was not open to the court to find a way round the convention for this claimant. They agreed that it seemed unfair that Mr Stott or somebody like him who suffered ill-treatment of the kind, should be denied compensation and the fact that they had declared the air carrier in breach, was a small comfort. The underlying problem, however, is that the predecessor of the Montréal Convention, which was the Warsaw Convention dating back to the 1920s, long predated equality law and therefore this type of situation was never envisaged in the original drafting. The Supreme Court said that there was a good argument to say the convention should now be amended to take into account the development of equality rights, but any amendment would have to be agreed by all of the contracting parties internationally.
The Montréal Convention requires revisiting. Because of its antiquated origins, it is out of touch with modern society. Not only excluding appropriate remedies in respect of disabled passengers, even where (as in this case) the court identifies that the carrier has treated the passenger inappropriately, but it also excludes claims in respect of the sort of psychological harm, which has long been recognised medically. It provides an exclusive remedy, that in failing to address issues which are excluded from the convention, it provides no remedy at all and denies access to justice for various classes of genuine claimants to suffer a genuine wrong. It is surely time for this piece of legislation to be given a complete overhaul. The origins of the Montréal Convention are almost 100 years old. In this time, travel has expanded and increased beyond measure and society has developed an increasing sophistication with regard to psychiatric injury and human rights in general. An international convention which excludes a remedy to genuinely affected individuals, is not worth the paper it is written on. This is definitely something we should lobby politicians to revisit.
For Mr Stott, it is scant comfort for the Supreme Court and the courts lower down, to confirm that he has been inappropriately treated. The airlines will know that they are untouchable in law, however inappropriately they may treat disabled people or people with reduced mobility. One thing that is clear in other aspects of personal injury law, whether this relates to employers liability or clinical negligence, is the increase in safety for the public and an awareness, before accidents happen, as people are aware that negligent mistakes will be actioned, making processes such as risk assessments, essential. The absence of any effective sanction, which is the effect that this judgement has had where the airlines are concerned, is a disincentive for them to treat such passengers with appropriate respect and consideration.
- See more at: http://www.pannone.com/media-centre/blog/personal-injury-blog/disabled-persons%E2%80%99-rights-not-protected-international-law-when#sthash.lFjCyKIu.dpuf
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