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An air carrier cannot be held liable under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, 49 U.S.C.S. § 1502, when an accident has not caused a passenger to suffer death, physical injury, or physical manifestation of injury.
Under Article 17 of the 1929 treaty on international air transportation, known as the Warsaw Convention, a carrier is liable for damages sustained through the accident of the carrier in the event of a passenger's death, wounding, or other "bodily injury" (which term is a translation of the term "l sion corporelle" in the authentic French text). Both the United States and the Bahamas adhere to the Warsaw Convention. In 1983, shortly after a passenger airplane's takeoff from Miami on a flight bound for the Bahamas, all three engines lost oil pressure. As the airplane began losing altitude rapidly, the passengers were informed that the airplane would be ditched in the Atlantic Ocean. One engine was eventually restarted, and the airplane landed safely in Miami. A group of passengers on the flight, each of whom claimed damages solely for mental distress, brought separate actions against the carrier. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, in a consolidated proceeding, dismissed all claims, including a claim for recovery under the Warsaw Convention. With respect to such claim, the District Court ruled that the carrier was not liable because mental anguish alone was not compensable under Article 17 (629 F Supp 307). On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, reversing, held that the Warsaw Convention provided recovery for a passenger's purely emotional injuries unaccompanied by physical injury because the term "l sion corporelle," as used in Article 17, encompassed purely emotional distress (872 F2d 1462).
Does Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, 49 U.S.C.S. § 1502, allow recovery for purely mental injuries?
The court held that Article 17 did not allow recovery by passengers for mental or psychic injuries unaccompanied by physical injury or physical manifestation of injury, because French-English dictionaries suggested that a proper translation of the term "l sion corporelle" was "bodily injury," and such translation accorded with the wording used in the two main translations of the Convention in English. None of the applicable French legal sources available in 1929--including legislation, judicial decisions, and scholarly writing--indicated that "l sion corporelle" should be translated other than as "bodily injury". The inference that by its structure, Article 17 does not exclude any particular category of damages--although plausible--was not otherwise supported. Translating "l sion corporelle" as "bodily injury" was consistent with the negotiating history of the Convention. There was no evidence that the drafters or signatories of the Convention specifically considered liability for psychic injury or the meaning of "l sion corporelle". A narrow reading of "l sion corporelle" as excluding purely mental injuries was consistent with (a) the primary purpose of the contracting parties to the Convention, namely, to limit the liability of air carriers in order to foster the growth of the fledgling commercial aviation industry, and (b) the secondary goal of the Convention, namely, to establish among the signatories uniform rules and procedures governing documentation and claims arising out of international transportation. Finally, such narrow reading was also supported by the post-1929 conduct and interpretations of the signatories to the Convention.