El Al Israel Airlines, Ltd. v. Tsui Yuan Tseng

PETITIONER: El Al Israel Airlines, Ltd.
RESPONDENT: Tsui Yuan Tseng
LOCATION: Knowles' Car

DOCKET NO.: 97-475
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 525 US 155 (1999)
ARGUED: Nov 10, 1998
DECIDED: Jan 12, 1999

ADVOCATES:
Diane W. Wilson - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Jonathan E. Nuechtherlein - for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioner
Jonathan E. Nuechterlein - For the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Robert H. Silk - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In a New York State court, Tsui Yuan Tseng alleged El Al Israel Airlines subjected her to an intrusive security search resulting in assault and false imprisonment before a flight from New York to Tel Aviv. Tseng alleged that psychic or psychosomatic personal injuries followed the incident, but no bodily injury occurred. El Al moved the case to federal court. The District Court dismissed the case due to the Warsaw Convention treaty. Convention provisions describe air carrier liability for international transportation of persons, baggage, or goods. Bodily injury, baggage or goods destruction, loss, or damage, and damage caused by delay are compensable under the Convention. Psychic or psychosomatic injury is not covered. Thus, Tseng's claim was not justicible. Moreover, New York tort law prevents El Al from liability suits covered under the Convention. The Court of Appeals held, in reversing, that the Convention drafters did not intend to remove all liability from an airline carrier, that the Convention does not shield routine operating procedures from the laws of signatory nations, and that the Convention precludes recourse to local law only when an incident is not exclusively covered. The Court of Appeals rejected the argument that the Convention would create uniformity because doing so would supplant applicable laws.

Question

Does the Warsaw Convention preclude international passengers from pursuing personal injury suits under local law?

Media for El Al Israel Airlines, Ltd. v. Tsui Yuan Tseng

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 10, 1998 in El Al Israel Airlines, Ltd. v. Tsui Yuan Tseng

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 97-475, El Al Israel Airlines v. Tsui Tseng.

Ms. Wilson.

Diane W. Wilson:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

We are here today requesting the Court to hold that a multilateral treaty of the United States, commonly known as the Warsaw Convention, exclusively governs recovery for passenger injury sustained in the course of international air carriage.

We are not contending for a broad right to avoid liability.

We are requesting the Court to uphold the faithful reading of the convention.

Ms. Tseng is seeking purely emotional distress damages as a result of being subjected to a security search, an integral and vital part of maintaining the safety and security of international air transportation.

The legal issue before the Court, however, is not confined to the issue presented in her case.

It is a global issue because there are over 120 nations adhering to the Warsaw Convention.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

May I ask you a preliminary question that is a little confusing?

The court below found that this was not an accident.

Is that right?

Diane W. Wilson:

Yes, Your Honor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And we take the case on that assumption.

Diane W. Wilson:

Yes, Your Honor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And there is an article in the convention setting aside limits of liability in the case of willful misconduct, but we don't have that issue before us in this case?

Diane W. Wilson:

I would submit, Justice O'Connor, you do not because the trial court found that there was no willful misconduct in the facts of this case, and that finding was not disturbed by the court of appeals, and therefore I do not believe it is before the Court.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And if there were a case of willful misconduct, then there... there would be no limit on the liability, or you would look to the law of the nation trying the case to determine that liability?

Diane W. Wilson:

Justice O'Connor, we would submit that you do not reach the issue of willful misconduct if you do not reach the threshold issue of meeting the conditions under article 17.

Willful misconduct wasn't intended to be read outside of the convention.

If you were to do so, then you would be not reading into the convention the fact that articles 17, 18, and 19 state the instances when the carrier shall be held liable.

Article 25... excuse me... article 22 limits that liability, and article 25, you lose the limit if you have willful misconduct.

But if you read that there's a recovery outside of the convention that your holding is that you have an instance where you have passengers attempting to prove that there isn't an accident so that they are unable to seek damages without limit.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So, in any event in this case, we simply don't address the issue of article 25 and how that would bear on it.

Diane W. Wilson:

Yes, Your Honor.

There's no reason to address that in this case.

Antonin Scalia:

Except that under your interpretation, we are left with the... with the surely unusual situation in which if there is a willful tort committed by a carrier, so long as it is not an accident, there is no recovery.

That's... extraordinary.

Diane W. Wilson:

Well, it--

Antonin Scalia:

Isn't that right?