Unexpected coffee spills that cause injury on an aircraft should be classified as accidents under the terms of the Montreal Convention, a European Court of Justice advocate general has formally opined.
The advisory ruling from advocate general Henrik Saugmandsgaard Oe follows a case against the now-defunct Austrian budget airline Niki.
It concerns a six-year old child who suffered second-degree burns from a hot coffee spill during a flight between Spain and Austria in August 2015.
Her father, seated beside her, had received a cup of coffee – without a lid – from the cabin crew, and placed it on the folding table in front of him. The container slipped and its contents spilled, although it could not be established whether this resulted from a defective table or aircraft vibration.
Niki filed for insolvency in 2017. The child, represented by her father, sought compensation of up to €8,500 from the airline’s bankruptcy administrator, which denied liability by claiming that the event did not meet the definition of an accident under the Montreal Convention.
While a regional court in Korneuburg, Austria, sided with the plaintiff in December 2015, a higher regional court in Vienna disagreed, arguing that the Montreal Convention only covered accidents caused by an inherent risk in air transport – and that the plaintiff could not prove this.
But the case was subsequently heard by the supreme court which sought the European Court of Justice opinion as to whether the definition of ‘accident’ applies when a cup of coffee, placed on a table, spills for unknown reasons and burns a passenger.
In his newly-published opinion the advocate general has ruled that the Montreal Convention’s meaning of ‘accident’ must be interpreted as a sudden or unusual event on board, external to the passenger concerned, which causes injury – crucially “without it being necessary to ascertain whether the event is due to a risk inherent in air transport”.
While such formal opinions are generally accepted by the courts, they are not binding.