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In re Air Crash Disaster at Warsaw

decided: April 8, 1983.


Appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) from an order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Charles P. Sifton, Judge, granting partial summary judgment for plaintiffs and holding that the defendant air carrier was not entitled to invoke a liability limitation or a defense in an action brought for deaths resulting from an air crash.

Oakes, Kearse, and Sloviter,*fn* Circuit Judges.

Author: Oakes

OAKES, Circuit Judge.

The Warsaw Convention*fn1 limits the liability of air carriers for the injury or death of international passengers. The Convention was modified in certain respects by the Montreal Agreement, which specifies that passengers must be advised of the carrier's liability limitations in 10-point type. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Charles P. Sifton, Judge, held that the use of 8.5-point rather than 10-point type to inform passengers of liability limitations stripped the appellant air carrier in this case of the protection of such limitations and prevented it from raising defenses under Article 20(1) of the Warsaw Convention. See In re Air Crash Disaster at Warsaw, Poland, on March 14, 1980, 535 F. Supp. 833 (E.D.N.Y. 1982). We affirm.


On March 14, 1980 an Ilyushin 62-M aircraft owned and operated by the appellant Polskie Linie Lotnicze (LOT Polish Airlines) (hereinafter LOT) crashed while on its final landing approach in Warsaw, Poland. The appellees are survivors of American passengers who, with one exception, boarded the flight in New York.*fn2 Eight of the nine decedents were affiliated with the United States Amateur Athletic Union Boxing Team and were en route to Warsaw for a tournament; the ninth decedent was the wife of the team physician. LOT concedes that the 8.5-point type "Advice to International Air Passengers on Limitations of Liability" (Advice) printed on the decedents' tickets violated the Montreal Agreement, as well as a Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) predating the Agreement, 14 C.F.R. § 221.175(a).*fn3 Both the Agreement and the FAR require the use of at least 10-point type; the difference between 8.5 and 10-point type, we are told by LOT, is 15/270ths of an inch, based on 72 type points to the inch. However minimal a 1.5-point difference in type size might seem, we conclude that it is enough to justify Judge Sifton's holding that the appellees in this case are not subject to the liability limitation established by the Montreal Agreement. Nevertheless, LOT is bound by its waiver under the Agreement of a defense that would otherwise be available to it under the Warsaw Convention. A brief review of the history surrounding the Convention and the Montreal Agreement is necessary to understand both LOT's arguments on appeal and our reasons for rejecting those arguments.

The Convention was drafted in Warsaw, Poland, in 1929 and became effective in February of 1933. The United States was not one of the original parties to the Convention, but it announced its intention to adhere to it in late 1934. After Senate approval and Presidential proclamation, the Convention assumed the status of a treaty, "equal in stature and force to the domestic laws of the United States." Smith v. Canadian Pacific Airways, Ltd., 452 F.2d 798, 801 (2d Cir. 1971). Article 17 of the Convention*fn4 established a presumption of carrier liability for injuries or death sustained on the aircraft but Article 22(1) limited that liability to 125,000 francs.*fn5 Although a carrier could avoid liability by showing that it took "all necessary measures to avoid the damage, or that it was impossible . . . to take such measures" -- the so-called "all necessary measures" defense of Article 20(1)*fn6 -- the practical effect of Article 17 was to shift the burden of proof from the passenger to the carrier. Article 17 and Article 22(1) are thus complementary, framing the trade-off embodied in the Convention. Article 3 rounds out the scheme by requiring carriers to furnish passengers with tickets stating that the transportation is subject to rules relating to liability established by the Convention.*fn7

Not surprisingly, consensus as to the need for a uniform law governing air carrier liability and a passenger-carrier compromise along the lines of that effected by Article 17 and Article 22(1) did not extend to the specific monetary limitations of Article 22. Almost immediately after the Convention went into effect, several of its provisions were criticized; the "underlying and recurring theme of all the discussions was whether the limit of liability had been set at the right level." See Lowenfeld & Mendelsohn, The United States and the Warsaw Convention, 80 Harv. L. Rev. 497, 504 (1967) [hereinafter cited as 80 Harv. L. Rev.]. In 1955, at an international conference at The Hague, Netherlands, the liability limitation was doubled to 250,000 francs and what came to be known as the Hague Protocol was drafted. Id. at 509. American delegates, however, were not satisfied with either the principle of limited liability or the notice provided by the standard form used by the airlines, id. at 512-514, and sought to have the warning made both more specific and more conspicuous. The Hague Protocol's amendment of the Convention's Article 3 notice provision arguably allowed each country to establish its own notice requirements, id. at 514, and in fact in 1963 the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) issued a regulation requiring foreign and domestic air carriers to furnish a clear statement of liability limitations with each ticket in at least 10-point type. See note 2 supra.

The Hague Protocol was never approved by the United States, largely because of dissatisfaction with the liability limitation. Over time, opposition to the Convention and the Hague Protocol developed into a pressure for formal denunciation of the Convention by the United States. On November 15, 1965, the United States filed a Notice of Denunciation. 80 Harv. L. Rev. at 551. But the State Department indicated its willingness to withdraw the Notice before it would become effective six months later, if it appeared likely that an international agreement addressing American concerns could be reached. Id. at 551-52. Despite the threat of denunciation, delegates to the Montreal Conference held in February of 1966 failed to agree on a proposal satisfactory to the United States. Just prior to the effective date of the Denunciation, however, members of the International Air Transport Association agreed to an interim arrangement called the Montreal Agreement. The Denunciation Notice was withdrawn two days before it was to become effective, and the CAB simultaneously announced its approval of the Agreement. Id. at 586-96.

The Montreal Agreement is by its very terms a "special contract" under Article 22(1) of the Convention, which provides that a carrier and passenger "may agree to a higher limit of liability."*fn8 Thus, although it is actually a private agreement among carriers, it effectively modifies the Convention, at least with respect to flights departing from, arriving, or stopping over in the United States. Carriers participating in the Agreement waive the Article 20(1) "all necessary measures" defense that would otherwise be available under the Warsaw Convention, and so the Agreement imposes essentially strict liability. Carriers signing the Agreement stipulated that they would

at time of delivery of the tickets, furnish to each passenger governed by the Convention or the Protocol and by the special contract described above [the Montreal Agreement], a notice in 10 point type advising international passengers of the limitations of liability.*fn9

In return for waiving the Article 20(1) defense and complying with the notice requirement set forth above, carriers receive the benefit of a liability limitation of $75,000 in most cases.


Appellant LOT's contentions may now be understood. LOT's primary argument is that the use of 8.5- rather than 10-point type was merely a "technical and wholly insubstantial" violation of the Montreal Agreement. LOT argues that, as printed, the tickets in this case complied with the intent and purpose of the Agreement because they provided adequate notice to the decedents. In spite of the fact that the Montreal Agreement was an eleventh-hour affair that narrowly averted American denunciation of the Warsaw Convention, and in spite of the CAB regulation that preceded and surely served as the model for the 10-point requirement in the Agreement, LOT maintains that the specification of 10-point type is of no "particular significance." Brief at 22. Thus LOT maintains that the district court erred in concluding that the effect of failing to comply with the Montreal Agreement's type size requirement subjected LOT to unlimited liability, which is the lot of a carrier who "accepts a passenger without a passenger ticket having been delivered." Article 3(2). LOT's second contention is that if it is deprived of the liability limitation established under the Montreal Agreement, the entire ...

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