Preemption of State Court Causes of Action in Montreal Convention Cases

By: Abigail Roberts


Defense counsel is often faced with the decision of how to respond to a Complaint, or draft a Motion for Summary Judgment, that arises under the Montreal Convention, but alleges state-court causes of action. For example, a complaint may allege causes of action for negligence, discrimination, false imprisonment, or other causes of action firmly originating in state law. When the complaint involves an incident that occurred while a passenger is embarking or disembarking from an aircraft during the course of international travel between signatory nations, however, the Plaintiff is not permitted to assert these causes of action. 

Actions involving accidents that occur while a passenger is embarking or disembarking during the course of international travel between signatory nations are governed by The Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, commonly referred to as the “Montreal Convention.”  The Montreal Convention provides the exclusive mechanism for recovery for injuries or other damages that arise during international travel.

The case law that governs the recoverability of damages under the Montreal Convention was first espoused in the landmark decision of El Al Israel Airlines v. Tseng, 525 U.S. 155, 161 (1999). In Tseng, the United States Supreme Court determined the Warsaw Convention, the predecessor to the Montreal Convention, provided the exclusive remedy for any claims falling within its scope.   The Court found that“[R]ecovery for a personal injury suffered ‘on board an aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking,’ if not allowed under the Convention, is not available at all.” Id. In so finding, the Court interpreted Article 24 of the Warsaw Convention, as clarified by Montreal Protocol No. 4, as precluding a passenger from stating any air transit personal injury claims under “local” law. 

Since that time, the holding in Tseng has been expanded to a number of cases interpreting similar provisions involved with the Montreal Convention. For example, in Nobre v. American Airlines, 2009 WL 5125976 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 21, 2009), the Court held the Montreal Convention is the “exclusive mechanism for recovery for personal injuries suffered on board an aircraft or in the course of embarking or disembarking from an airplane. The Court noted that, if a claim falls within the reach of the Convention, it must be brought under its terms or not at all.  Id.

Therefore, careful consideration must be paid in either responding to a Complaint that alleges state-court causes of action or in moving for summary judgment on these issues. If Plaintiff is asserting causes of action that arise under local or state law, the action is prohibited by the Montreal Convention and Plaintiff should be precluded from recovery for same.