Personal Injury on Aircraft – definition of accident

Main Issue

The preliminary ruling under Article 267 TFEU to the Austrian Supreme Court provided clarification of what constitutes an accident triggering liability on the part of the air carrier under Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention. The Convention sets out common rules relating to the international carriage of passengers, luggage and cargo by aircraft.


The Applicant had been travelling from Mallorca to Vienna with her father when the incident occurred. Her father had been served a cup of coffee which was placed on the tray in front of him but subsequently tipped over causing injury to his right thigh but more serious injury to the Applicants’ chest resulting in second degree burns.

The Applicants’ father then filed a claim on her behalf under Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention seeking compensation for the harm caused to the daughter.

It was the Defendants contention that because there was no ‘accident’ as such that they cannot be held liable under Article 17(1). It was their contention that liability under this section is only associated with ‘the materialisation of a hazard associated with aviation’ and as such cannot apply to the injuries sustained by the Applicant.

While the Regional Court upheld the Applicants claim for compensation, the Higher Regional Court set aside the judgement delivered in the first instance. The Applicant then brought an appeal to the Supreme Court who decided to put a stay on proceedings and referred the principle question to the Court for ruling.

Preliminary Ruling

The question referred for preliminary ruling is as follows;

‘Where a cup of hot coffee, which is placed on the tray table of the seat in front of a person in an aircraft in flight for unknown reasons slides and tips over, causing a passenger to suffer scalding, does this constitute an accident triggering a carriers liability within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention?’.

In consideration of this question, it was found that to find the carriers’ liability subject to the damage being due to a hazard typically associated with aviation or relating to the movement of the aircraft would not be consistent with the ordinary meaning of the word ‘accident’. As such, article 17(1) should not be interpreted in this way.

So the Court ruled in essence as follows:

the concept of ‘accident’ within the meaning of that provision covers all situations occurring on board an aircraft in which an object used when serving passengers has caused bodily injury to a passenger, without it being necessary to examine whether those situations stem from a hazard typically associated with aviation.

The Court further pointed out that its refusal to limit liability of airline in this way does not impose an excessive compensatory burden on the industry.

Key Point

Therefore, the key point from this ruling is that the term ‘accident’ within the confines of 17(1) may relate to all situations occurring on board an aircraft. Contrary to the argument put forward by the Defendant, it is not necessary for Court to examine whether the hazard was one which is typically associated with aviation. However that is only part of the consideration what is an accident on the board of aircraft. There is a separate aspect of accident being caused by the unusual or unexpected event external to the injured passenger.