Armstrong flew on Hawaiian Airlines from Kauai to Brisbane. In Brisbane, he received wheelchair service to baggage claim, but the Qantas employee who—pursuant to a ground handling agreement— provided the wheelchair service advised him no assistance with his luggage was available. Armstrong did not live up to his name. He injured his arm lifting one of his bags from the luggage carousel.
The Montreal Convention provides: "The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking." The issue for the federal court on the airline's motion for summary judgment was whether there had been such an "accident." An "accident" is "an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger." Air France v. Saks, 470 U.S. 392, 405 (1985). Thus, if— as in Saks, the injury results from normal operation and is attributable to a passenger's abnormal internal reaction thereto—no "accident." Recognizing that injuries generally result from a chain of events, the courts require only that one link in the causal chain qualify.
Hawaiian argued that Armstrong's arm injury resulted from his own internal reaction to normal and expected operations. Armstrong, on the other hand, said it was the unusual and unexpected declination by Hawaiian's ground handler to provide assistance with luggage that caused his injury. The Court recognized that the event triggering the "accident" could be inaction, as was the case in Olympic Airways v. Husain, 540 U.S. 644 (2004). There, a passenger gravely allergic to cigarette smoke was denied the opportunity to change seats to distance himself from cigarette smoke. Such a declination could be the event that would constitute an "accident" even though the injury also resulted from the passenger's unusual internal reaction to exposure to cigarette smoke.
In Armstrong, there was an unusual internal reaction to lifting a bag from the carousel. Nonetheless, the Court had to decide whether another link in the causal chain was unusual or unexpected and external to the passenger. The Court held that the refusal to provide assistance upon request could so qualify. The question is whether that refusal was unusual or unexpected. The Court observed that the Ninth Circuit has held that "the jury would consider industry standards, best practices, expert medical testimony, and any other relevant evidence" to determine whether the challenged action was unexpected or unusual. 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129971, at *22-23 (citing Baillie v. MedAire, Inc., 764 Fed. App'x 597, 598 (9th Cir. 2019)). Finding sufficient evidence to raise a question of fact whether the declination of assistance was unusual or unexpected, the Court denied the carrier's motion for summary judgment. Armstrong v. Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129971 (D. Haw. Aug. 2, 2019).
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