Ehrlich v. American Airlines, Inc.

Decision Date08 March 2004
Docket NumberDocket No. 02-9462.
Citation360 F.3d 366
PartiesGary EHRLICH and Maryanne Ehrlich, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. AMERICAN AIRLINES, INC., American Eagle Airlines, Inc. and Simmons Airlines, Inc., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit

Frank H. Granito, Jr., New York City (Jeanne M. O'Grady, Speiser, Krause, Nolan & Granito, New York City, of counsel), for Appellants.

David S. Rutherford, New York City (Lewis R. Silverman, Sarah A. Hine, Rutherford & Christie, New York City, of counsel), for Appellees.

Robert M. Loeb, Civil Division, Department of Justice, Washington, DC (Peter D. Keisler, Assistant Attorney General, Roslynn R. Mauskopf, United States Attorney, Colette G. Matzzie, Attorney, Civil Division, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, of counsel), for The United States as Amicus Curiae.

Before: MESKILL, MINER and STRAUB, Circuit Judges.

MESKILL, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs-appellants Gary and Maryanne Ehrlich (the Ehrlichs) experienced an ordeal that few airline passengers have the misfortune to endure. While traveling from Baltimore, Maryland to John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to catch a connecting flight to London, the Ehrlichs' plane suffered an abnormal landing. On approaching JFK, their aircraft overshot the runway and was abruptly stopped by an arrestor bed before the plane would otherwise have plunged into the waters of nearby Thurston Bay.1

According to the Ehrlichs, both appellants sustained physical and mental injuries during the course of that incident. They subsequently commenced an action to recover damages for those injuries pursuant to the international treaty commonly known as the Warsaw Convention. See Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to International Transportation by Air, Oct. 12, 1929, 49 Stat. 3000, 3014, T.S. No. 876 (entered into force in the United States in 1934) (Warsaw Convention), reprinted in 49 U.S.C. § 40105 note.

Defendants-appellees American Airlines, Inc. (American Airlines), American Eagle Airlines, Inc. (American Eagle), and Simmons Airlines, Inc. (Simmons Airlines) (collectively the airline defendants) moved for partial summary judgment. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Amon, J., granted their motion on the ground that they could not be held liable under the Warsaw Convention for mental injuries that were not caused by physical injuries. See Ehrlich v. American Airlines, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21419, at *10-*11 (E.D.N.Y. June 21, 2002).

This appeal asks us to resolve whether passengers can hold carriers liable in accordance with the Warsaw Convention for mental injuries that accompany, but are not caused by, bodily injuries. For the reasons that follow, we hold that they may not and affirm the district court's grant of partial summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

On May 8, 1999, Gary and Maryanne Ehrlich boarded American Eagle Flight No. 4925 in Baltimore, Maryland. They intended to travel to JFK, where they were scheduled to connect to an American Airlines flight to London. When their flight reached JFK, the plane approached the airport at a high rate of speed, overshot its designated runway, and was abruptly stopped from potentially plunging into Thurston Bay by an arrestor bed.2 The passengers subsequently evacuated that aircraft by jumping approximately six to eight feet from its doorway.

The Ehrlichs contend that they suffered bodily injuries during the course of both the abnormal landing and the ensuing evacuation. Gary Ehrlich allegedly sustained knee injuries, while Maryanne Ehrlich purportedly sustained injuries to, inter alia, her neck, back, shoulder, hips, and right knee. Since the abnormal landing, Maryanne Ehrlich has also allegedly developed hypertension and a heart problem.

In addition to these bodily injuries, the Ehrlichs further contend that they sustained mental injuries. According to the evidence presented to the district court, both Gary and Maryanne Ehrlich suffered from a fear of flying after the accident. Moreover, Gary Ehrlich apparently experienced nightmares after which he awoke in the middle of the night recalling the abnormal landing and evacuation. Similarly, Maryanne Ehrlich reports that she periodically has trouble sleeping as a result of the accident.

On September 27, 1999, the Ehrlichs commenced the instant action against American Airlines, American Eagle, and Simmons Airlines in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, pursuant to the Warsaw Convention, in an effort to recover damages for their aforementioned physical and psychological injuries. After deposing the Ehrlichs, the airline defendants moved for partial summary judgment. They asked the district court to dismiss the Ehrlichs' claims for mental injuries on two grounds. First, the airline defendants argued that the Ehrlichs had failed to prove that they had sustained such injuries. Second, the airline defendants contended that, even if the Ehrlichs had suffered those injuries, the damages in question did not flow from their bodily injuries and that carriers were liable under the Warsaw Convention only for psychological injuries that were caused by bodily injuries.

The Ehrlichs vigorously opposed that motion. They argued that they had, in fact, sustained mental injuries. They also took the position that carriers could be held liable under the Warsaw Convention as long as a mental injury accompanied a physical injury, regardless of whether the two distinct types of injuries shared a causal relationship. Finally, although they never filed a formal cross-motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the matter, the Ehrlichs asked the court to grant them partial summary judgment on the issue of carrier liability. In essence, the Ehrlichs argued that, under the International Air Transport Association Intercarrier Agreement on Passenger Liability (Intercarrier Agreement),3 the airline defendants were strictly liable for damages up to the equivalent of $140,000 and that the airlines bore the burden of proving that they had taken all necessary measures to avoid damages sustained in excess of that sum.

The district court heard oral argument on May 31, 2001, at which time the court granted the Ehrlichs' so-called "cross-motion" for partial summary judgment on the issue of liability under the Intercarrier Agreement. Ehrlich, 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21419, at *3. However, the court initially reserved decision on the airline defendants' motion for partial summary judgment. In June 2002, after further considering the issue, the district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the airline defendants. See id. at *1.

On reviewing the applicable case law, the court determined that, "[u]nder the Warsaw Convention, a plaintiff may only recover for emotional damages caused by physical injuries." Id. at *10. This proved to be a critical conclusion, as the court found that the Ehrlichs had offered no evidence demonstrating a causal connection between their mental and physical injuries. Id. at *10-*11. Because the district court concluded that the Ehrlichs had "not raised a genuine issue of fact regarding a causal connection between their alleged bodily injuries and their mental suffering," the court granted the airline defendants' motion for partial summary judgment, holding that the Ehrlichs could "not recover for their emotional trauma resulting solely from the aberrant landing and evacuation." Id. at *11.

Shortly thereafter, the Ehrlichs sought to certify the issue for an interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). The district court denied their motion and set a trial date for the remaining Warsaw Convention issues pertaining to liability for bodily injuries. However, the parties managed to resolve those issues before trial. On October 31, 2002, the Ehrlichs stipulated to the discontinuance of their action with prejudice against American Airlines and Simmons Airlines. At the same time, American Eagle filed an Offer of Judgment in which it presented the Ehrlichs with the opportunity to take a judgment in the amount of $100,000 against that airline. Several days later, the Ehrlichs accepted American Eagle's offer on the condition that their acceptance was "without prejudice to plaintiffs' right to appeal from" the order of partial summary judgment.

The district court issued a Judgment that conformed to both American Eagle's offer and the Ehrlichs' conditional acceptance thereof. The court entered a judgment in the amount of $100,000 against American Eagle in complete satisfaction of the Ehrlichs' claims for bodily injury. The court also entered a judgment in favor of the airline defendants pursuant to its earlier order granting their motion for partial summary judgment with respect to the Ehrlichs' claims for mental injuries; the judgment entered by the district court was expressly without prejudice to the Ehrlichs' right to appeal from that partial summary judgment decision. This timely appeal followed.

DISCUSSION
I. Standard of Review

We review de novo the district court's grant of a motion for partial summary judgment, Juliano v. Health Maintenance Org. of New Jersey, 221 F.3d 279, 286 (2d Cir.2000), but we only undertake to do so when, as here, a final decision has rendered the case appealable. See Travelers Ins. Co. v. Carpenter, 313 F.3d 97, 102 (2d Cir.2002). Similarly, "[t]he proper interpretation of the Warsaw Convention is an issue of law, which we review de novo." Wallace v. Korean Air, 214 F.3d 293, 296 (2d Cir.2000).

II. The Warsaw Convention System

The Ehrlichs seek to hold American Eagle liable for their mental injuries pursuant to the Warsaw Convention. As we exhaustively explained more than a decade ago,

[t]he Warsaw Convention was drafted when the airline industry was in its infancy. It was the product of two international conferences — the first held in Paris...

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