Olympic Airways v. Husain

PETITIONER: Olympic Airways
RESPONDENT: Rubina Husain, Individually, and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Abid M. Hanson, Deceased, et al.
LOCATION: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

DOCKET NO.: 02-1348
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 540 US 644 (2004)
GRANTED: May 27, 2003
ARGUED: Nov 12, 2003
DECIDED: Feb 24, 2004

ADVOCATES:
Andrew J. Harakas - argued the cause for Petitioner
Barbara B. McDowell - argued the cause for Respondents
Barbara McDowell - argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance
H. Bartow Farr, III - argued the cause for Respondents
Warren L. Dean, Jr. - for the Air Transport Association of America, Inc., as amicus curiae urging reversal

Facts of the case

Abid Hanson was allergic to second-hand smoke. On an Olympic Airways flight, he and his wife, Rubina Husain, sat in non-smoking seats. However, because the seats were close to the smoking section, Mrs. Husain requested she and her husband be moved. Her request was denied twice, even after the smoke began bothering Hanson. Hanson died during the flight. Husain filed suit in California federal district court. She sought damages under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, which allows damages recovery for international air travelers for accidents on airplanes. The district court agreed that Hanson's death was an "accident" as defined by the convention and awarded Husain $1.4 million. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question

If a passenger's pre-existing medical condition is aggravated by exposure to normal airplane conditions, is this an "accident" under the Warsaw Convention's Article 17 (for which the airline is responsible)?

Media for Olympic Airways v. Husain

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 12, 2003 in Olympic Airways v. Husain

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 24, 2004 in Olympic Airways v. Husain

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-1348, Olympic Airways versus Husain will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit.

While respondent and her husband Dr. Hanson were traveling overseas, she requested that petitioner Olympic Airways assign them non smoking seats, because Dr. Hanson had asthma and was sensitive to secondhand smoke.

After boarding they discovered that their seats were located only three rows in front of the smoking section.

A flight attendant refused respondent's three requests to move Dr. Hanson.

About two hours onto the flight the smoke noticeably increased in their section.

Dr. Hanson walked toward the front of the plane to get some fresh air.

Dr. Hanson suffered an asthma attack and after receiving medical assistance he died.

Respondent filed a wrongful-death suit under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, and the District Court found petitioner liable.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the flight attendants refusal to reseat Dr. Hanson constituted an accident under Article 17, because her conduct was both external to Dr. Hanson and unexpected and unusual in light of industry standards and petitioner’s policy.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Under Article 17 an air carrier is liable for a passenger’s death caused by an accident that occurred on an international flight.

In this Court’s decision in Air France v. Saks, the Court defined accident to mean an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger, and not the passenger’s own internal reaction to the usual, normal and expected operation of the aircraft.

The court did not suggest that only one of that could constitute the accident, but recognized that any injury is the product of a chain of causes.

The Court stated that a plaintiff need only be able to prove that some link in the chain was an unusual or unexpected event external to the passenger, the party’s dispute; which event should be the focus of the accident inquiry?

Petitioner argues that the injury producing event was not the flight attendant’s conduct, but rather the presence of ambient cigarette smoke in the aircraft’s cabin, which is a normal and expected part of the operation of an international aircraft.

Petitioner’s focus on the ambient cigarette smoke is misplaced, and neglects the reality that there are often multiple interrelated factual events that combine to cause any injury.

In Saks, the Court recognized that any one of these factual events or happenings, maybe a link in the chain of causes, and so long as it is unusual or unexpected, it constitutes an accident under Article 17.

The flight attendant’s refusal on three separate occasions to move Dr. Hanson was also a factual event that the District Court correctly found to be a link in the chain of causes that led to Dr. Hanson’s death.

We also reject petitioner’s argument that because the flight attendant’s failure to act was not an affirmative act, it cannot constitute an accident.

The Relevant accident inquiry under Saks is whether there is an unexpected or unusual event or happening.

The rejection of an explicit request for assistance would be an event or happening under the ordinary unusual definitions of these terms.

In other provisions of the Convention confirmed that there is often no distinction between action and inaction on the issues of ultimate liability.

We therefore, hold that the flight attendant’s conduct here constitutes an accident under Article 17.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice O’Connor has joined parts 1 & 2.

Justice Breyer took no part in the consideration of this case or decision of this case.