Airlines are Liable for Overturned Coffee on the Plane

An airline had to pay damages after a girl was scalded by an overturned hot coffee on an airplane. The company has brought the judgment before the ECJ.

According to a ruling by the European Court of Justice,  travelers are entitled to compensation in the event of scalding from hot coffee overturned on an airplane. Airlines were to be held liable if passengers had not caused the damage themselves, the Luxembourg judges ruled on Thursday.

The airlines’ liability could not be made dependent on the fact that the damage was due to an aviation-specific risk or that there was a connection between the accident and the operation of the aircraft, the judges continued. However, according to the Montreal Aviation Agreement, which is relevant to the EU, airlines could be released from liability if they demonstrated that travelers were responsible for the damage.

The top EU judges largely followed the opinion of an important expert. He had previously argued that the airline could be held liable for injuries caused by sudden occurrences on board or when boarding and disembarking that the passenger had not caused.

The background to the judgment was a case from Austria. It was a then six-year-old who flew from Mallorca to Vienna in 2015 with the now insolvent airline Niki and her family. A flight attendant served drinks during the flight. The father took a lidless mug of freshly brewed hot coffee from her and set it down on the folding table attached to the front seat. At that point, the girl was leaning against his father over the armrest.

The coffee then slipped and tipped. It could not be clarified whether it was due to a defect in the parking table or due to the aircraft vibrating. The girl suffered second degree burns – these are moderate burns that usually heal with or without scars.

The airline rejected the family’s claims for damages, arguing that there was no accident caused by the airline itself or its employees. The damage is not based on a risk typical of aviation. The Austrian Supreme Court then referred the case to Luxembourg.

The top EU judges now saw things differently. With the Montreal Convention, among other things, a regulation of the strict liability of airlines should be introduced, they continued. However, they could be released from liability in whole or in part if they can prove that travelers caused or contributed to the damage themselves. The Austrian judiciary now has to make a decision on the basis of the ECJ judgment in a specific case.