Passenger Sues Airline for Sexual Assault During Flight

Michael Talve, CEO

Written by
— Updated on October 27, 2017

sexual assaultThis case involves a passenger on an international flight who fell asleep during the flight. The cabin of the plane got dark while the passenger was sleeping because it was a night flight. After several hours, the passenger woke up to discover that a man seated next to her had unbuckled her belt, unzipped and unbuttoned her jean shorts, and placed his hands into her underwear and was fondling her. The passenger got away from the man and reported the assault to a flight attendant. The passenger later reported the assault to the airport police and they arrested the man. The passenger brought a lawsuit against the airline claiming that they were liable for the sexual assault under aviation regulations. An expert in commercial flight operations was sought to opine on the case.

Question(s) For Expert Witness

  • 1. Can a passenger on an international flight sue an airline if she is sexually assaulted during the flight by another passenger?

Expert Witness Response

The law that governs this type of case is the Warsaw Convention. Under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, a passenger on an international flight may sue the airline if there is an “accident” which causes the passenger damage and the accident takes place on board an aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking from an international air flight. Usually, an airline can only be held liable for an accident that is proximately caused by the abnormal or unexpected operation of the aircraft, the abnormal or unexpected conduct of airline personnel, or that involves “a risk characteristic of air travel.” In order to be an accident under Article 17, the incident that occurs on the airplane must be an unusual or unexpected happening that is external to the passenger. In this case, the passenger can probably sue the airline under the Warsaw Convention because the sexual assault probably happened because of a risk characteristic of air travel. The sexual assault was probably a characteristic of air travel since the passenger was left vulnerable to such an assault by having to sleep on a plane unsupervised in a darkened area. The airline in this case is probably liable for the sexual assault because the passenger was in a confined, cramped space where she was vulnerable to an attack by another passenger she did not know and this would probably be an accident that was a risk characteristic of air travel under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention.

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