Eastern Airlines, Inc v. Floyd

Decision Date17 April 1991
Docket NumberNo. 89-1598,89-1598
Citation113 L.Ed.2d 569,111 S.Ct. 1489,499 U.S. 530
PartiesEASTERN AIRLINES, INC., Petitioner v. Rose Marie FLOYD, et vir., et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

After petitioner's plane narrowly avoided crashing during a flight between Miami and the Bahamas, respondent passengers filed separate complaints seeking damages solely for mental distress arising out of the incident. The District Court consolidated the proceedings and ruled that Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, which sets forth conditions under which an international air carrier can be held liable for injuries to passengers, does not allow recovery for mental anguish alone. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the phrase "lesion corporelle" in the authentic French text of Article 17 encompasses purely emotional distress.


1. Article 17 does not allow recovery for purely mental injuries. Pp. 534-553.

(a) When interpreting a treaty, this Court begins with the treaty's text and the context in which the written words are used. Other general rules of construction may be brought to bear on difficult or ambiguous passages; and, since treaties are construed more liberally than private agreements, the Court may look beyond the written words to the treaty's history, the negotiations, and the practical construction adopted by the parties. P. 534-535.

(b) Neither the Warsaw Convention itself nor any of the applicable legal sources demonstrates that the relevant Article 17 phrase, "lesion corporelle," should be translated other than as "bodily injury"—a narrow meaning excluding purely mental injuries. Bilingual dictionaries suggest that that translation is proper, and any concerns that the dictionary definitions may be too general for purposes of treaty interpretation are partly allayed when, as here, the definitions accord with the main English translations of the Convention, including the text employed by the Senate when it ratified the Convention. Moreover, a review of relevant French legal materials reveals no legislation, judicial decisions, or scholarly writing indicating that in 1929, the year the Convention was drafted, "lesion corporelle" had a meaning in French law encompassing psychic injuries. It is unlikely that the understanding of the term "lesion corporelle" as "bodily injury" that was apparently held by the Convention's contracting parties would have been displaced by a meaning abstracted from French damages law, which, at the relevant time evidently allowed recovery for psychic injury, particularly when the psychic injury cause of action would not have been recognized in many other countries represented at the Convention. Nor is this conclusion altered by an examination of Article 17's structure, whereby "lesion corporelle" might plausibly be read to refer to a general class of injuries including internal injuries, in contrast with other language in the Article covering bodily ruptures. Although the official German translation of "lesion corporelle" adopted by Austria, Germany, and Switzerland used German terms whose closest English translation is apparently "infringement on the health," this Court is reluctant to place much weight on an English translation of a German translation of a French text, particularly in the absence of any German, Austrian, or Swiss cases adhering to the broad interpretation that the German delegate evidently espoused. Pp. 535-542.

(c) Translating "lesion corporelle" as "bodily injury" is consistent with the negotiating history of the Convention. It is reasonable to infer that the drafters of the language that ultimately became Article 17 rejected broader proposed language, which almost certainly would have permitted recovery for emotional distress, in order to limit the types of recoverable injuries. Moreover, a review of the documentary record for the Warsaw Conference confirms that neither the drafters nor the signatories specifically considered liability for psychic injury, apparently because many, if not most, countries did not recognize recovery for such injuries at the time. Thus, the drafters most likely would have felt compelled to make an unequivocal reference to purely mental injury if they had intended to allow such recovery, as did the signatories to the Berne Convention on International Rail. The narrower reading of "lesion corporelle" also is consistent with the primary purpose of the Warsaw Convention's contracting parties, who were more concerned with limiting the liability of air carriers in order to foster the growth of the fledgling commercial aviation industry than they were with providing full recovery to injured passengers. Pp. 542-546.

(d) On balance, the evidence of the post-1929 conduct and interpretations of the Warsaw Convention signatories supports the narrow translation of "lesion corporelle." Although a 1951 proposal to substitute "affection corporelle" for "lesion corporelle" was never implemented, the discussion and vote suggest that, in the view of the 20 signatories on the committee that adopted the proposal, "lesion corporelle" had a distinctly physical scope. Moreover, although the Hague Protocol of 1955, the Montreal Agreement of 1966, and the Guatemala City Protocol of 1971 all refer to "personal injury" rather than "bodily injury," none of these agreements support the broad interpretation reached by the Court of Appeals. There is no evidence that any of them was intended to effect a substantive change in, or clarification of, the provisions of Article 17. The Hague Protocol refers to "personal injury" only in the context of giving airline passengers notice that the Warsaw Convention in most cases imposes limits of liability for "death or personal injury." Additionally, the Montreal Agreement does not and cannot purport to speak for the Warsaw Convention signatories, since it is not a treaty, but merely an agreement among the major international air carriers. Furthermore, the Guatemala City Protocol is not in effect in the international arena, since only a few countries have ratified it, and cannot be considered dispositive in this country, since it has not been ratified by the Senate. Also unpersuasive is the reasoning of the Supreme Court of Israel, in the only apparent judicial decision from a Warsaw Convention signatory addressing the question, that "desirable jurisprudential policy" mandates an expansive reading of Article 17 to reach purely psychic injuries. This Court cannot give effect to the Israeli court's perceived policy without convincing evidence that the signatories' intent with respect to Article 17 would allow recovery for purely psychic injury. This Court's construction better accords with the Convention's stated purpose of achieving uniformity of rules governing claims arising from international air transportation, since subjecting international air carriers to strict liability for purely mental distress, as would the Guatemala City Protocol and the Montreal Agreement, would be controversial for most signatory countries. Pp. 546-552.

2. The issue whether passengers can recover for mental injuries accompanied by physical injuries is not presented or addressed here, since respondents do not allege physical injury or physical manifestation of injury. Nor does this Court reach the question whether the Convention provides the exclusive cause of action for injuries sustained during international air transportation, since the Court of Appeals did not address it and certiorari was not granted to consider it here. Pp. 552-553.

872 F.2d 1462 (CA11 1989), reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

John Michael Murray, Miami, Fla., for petitioner.

Joel D. Eaton, Miami, Fla., for respondents.

Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention 1 sets forth conditions under which an international air carrier can be held lia- ble for injuries to passengers. This case presents the question whether Article 17 allows recovery for mental or psychic injuries unaccompanied by physical injury or physical manifestation of injury.


On May 5, 1983, an Eastern Airlines flight departed from Miami, bound for the Bahamas. Shortly after takeoff, one of the plane's three jet engines lost oil pressure. The flight crew shut down the failing engine and turned the plane around to return to Miami. Soon thereafter, the second and third engines failed due to loss of oil pressure. The plane began losing altitude rapidly, and the passengers were informed that the plane would be ditched in the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately, after a period of descending flight without power, the crew managed to restart an engine and land the plane safely at Miami International Airport. 872 F.2d 1462, 1466 (CA11 1989).

Respondents, a group of passengers on the flight, brought separate complaints against petitioner, Eastern Airlines, Inc. (Eastern), each claiming damages solely for mental distress arising out of the incident. The District Court entertained each complaint in a consolidated proceeding.2 Eastern conceded that the engine failure and subsequent preparations for ditching the plane amounted to an "accident" under Article 17 of the Convention but argued that Article 17 also makes physical injury a condition of liability. See In re Eastern Airlines, Inc., Engine Failure, Miami Int'l Airport, 629 F.Supp. 307, 312 (SD Fla.1986). Relying on another federal court's analysis of the French authentic text and negotiating history of the Convention, see Burnett v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 368 F.Supp. 1152 (NM 1973), the District Court concluded that mental anguish alone is not compensable under Article 17. See 629 F.Supp., at 314.

The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed, holding that the phrase "lesion corporelle" in the authentic French text of Article 17 encompasses purely emotional distress. See 872 F.2d, at 1480. To support its conclusion, the court examined the French legal...

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