Jane Doe v. Etihad Airways

Decision Date30 August 2017
Docket NumberNo. 16-1042.,16-1042.
Citation870 F.3d 406
Parties Jane DOE; John Doe, husband and wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. ETIHAD AIRWAYS, P.J.S.C., Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

ARGUED: Mark Kelley Schwartz, DRIGGERS, SCHULTZ & HERBST, P.C., Troy, Michigan, for Appellants. Andrew J. Harakas, CLYDE & CO US LLP, New York, New York, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mark Kelley Schwartz, DRIGGERS, SCHULTZ & HERBST, P.C., Troy, Michigan, for Appellants. Andrew J. Harakas, Daniel E. Correll, CLYDE & CO US LLP, New York, New York, Scott R. Torpey, JAFFE RAITT HEUER & WEISS, Southfield, Michigan, for Appellee.

Before: BOGGS, SUHRHEINRICH, and McKEAGUE, Circuit Judges.


BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Jane Doe and her eleven-year-old daughter flew aboard Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi to Chicago. For the duration of the fourteen-hour journey, Doe's tray table remained open in her lap because a knob that was meant to hold it in place had fallen to the floor. During the flight, Doe's daughter found the knob on the floor and gave it to Doe, who placed it in a seatback pocket. When it came time to descend, an Etihad flight attendant (unaware of the detached knob) gave Doe the familiar reminder to place her tray table in the upright and locked position for landing. Doe, of course, could not comply. To aid in explaining her problem, she reached into the seatback pocket to retrieve the fallen knob. But when she stuck her hand into the pocket, she was unexpectedly pricked by a hypodermic needle that lay hidden within. She gasped, and the needle drew blood from her finger.

Doe claims damages from Etihad for both her physical injury and her "mental distress, shock, mortification, sickness and illness, outrage and embarrassment from natural sequela of possible exposure to" various diseases. Her husband claims loss of consortium. The Montreal Convention of 1999, an international treaty under which these claims arise, imposes strict liability (up to a monetary cap) upon Etihad "for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft." Etihad concedes that an accident onboard its aircraft caused Doe to suffer a bodily injury. But Etihad argues that "damage sustained in case of ... bodily injury" means only "damage caused by bodily injury," and thus does not include Doe's fear of contagion and other emotional-distress and mental-anguish damages—damages that Etihad claims were caused not by Doe's bodily injury (the small hole in her finger) but by the nature of the instrumentality of that injury (the needle). The district court agreed and granted partial summary judgment for Etihad. But the district court erred both in reading the additional "caused by" requirement into the treaty and in concluding that Doe's bodily injury didn't cause her emotional and mental injuries. The plain text of the Montreal Convention allows Doe to recover all her "damage sustained" from the incident, which includes damages for both physical injury and accompanying emotional or mental harm. So, for the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.


When Doe was pricked by the needle, the passenger seated in the aisle seat to her right heard Doe exclaim, "ouch," and saw her finger bleeding. The Etihad flight attendant who had come to Doe's seat picked up the needle and what was later determined to be its accompanying insulin syringe, both of which Doe had placed on her tray table. But the flight attendant then returned the items to the tray table and left to summon the assistance of her supervisor. Because the airplane had begun its descent, the flight attendants did not have access to the flight deck, which was where the only onboard sharps box was located, nor were the flight attendants permitted to call the flight deck absent a more pressing emergency.

The flight attendant returned with her supervisor. The flight attendant took the needle and syringe, placed them in an empty water bottle, capped the bottle, and later turned the bottle over to her cabin manager. The supervisor, meanwhile, gave Doe an antiseptic wipe, which Doe used to wipe her finger, and a Band-Aid, which the supervisor himself wrapped around her finger. The cabin manager wrote a report of the incident and told Doe that Etihad would contact her. A flight attendant recommended that Doe see a doctor, but Etihad provided no medical assistance other than the antiseptic wipe and Band-Aid.

The next day, Doe saw a family physician, who noted a "small needle poke" on Doe's finger. Doe was prescribed medication for possible exposure to hepatitis

, tetanus, and HIV, and she underwent several rounds of testing over the following year. Thankfully for Doe, all the tests came back negative. Nevertheless, Doe claims that she refrained from sexual intercourse with her husband and from sharing food with her daughter until one year after the incident, when her doctor told her that she could be certain that she had not contracted a disease from the needlestick.

Two days after the flight, Doe sent an email to Etihad to follow up because Etihad had neither sent her a copy of the incident report nor offered her any further assistance. One week later, Etihad replied by email to offer a "purely goodwill gesture" of "possible reimbursement" of Doe's medical expenses, "without any admission of liability." This litigation followed.


Plaintiffs filed suit against Etihad in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.1 Etihad, an entity wholly owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, is a "foreign state" within the meaning of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1603(a). But as a condition of Etihad's Foreign Air Carrier Permit—issued by the United States Department of Transportation to permit Etihad to fly to United States airports—Etihad waived sovereign immunity from suit in United States courts and could thus be sued "in any judicial district in which [Etihad] is licensed to do business or is doing business," which includes the Eastern District of Michigan because of Etihad's codeshare and other business agreements with airlines operating from points within that district. 28 U.S.C. § 1391(f) ; see 49 U.S.C. § 41301.2

Following discovery, Etihad moved for, and the district court granted, partial summary judgment in favor of Etihad as to Doe's claims for mental-anguish and emotional-distress damages, including fear of contagion. (For simplicity, we will refer to these various claims collectively as Doe's claims for mental anguish.3 ) The partial-summary-judgment order also dismissed Doe's husband's derivative claim for loss of consortium. Doe declined to pursue a lost-earnings claim that she had pleaded in her complaint, leaving only her claim for the physical pain, suffering, and medical expenses caused by the needlestick

, which the parties stipulated to be de minimis relative to the dismissed claims.

(These de minimis damages include the physical pain and suffering from being pricked by the needle: the small hole in Doe's finger and the "ouch," so to speak. But they do not include any mental anguish arising from the fact that it was a stray needle and not, for example, a sterilized toothpick, that pricked Doe's finger. The logic behind this distinction is that if something like a sterilized toothpick had caused Doe's bodily injury, then Doe would not have had any reasonable fear of contagion, so Doe's fear of contagion must arise from the fact that it was a needle that caused her injury, rather than arising from the injury itself, and Doe's fear of contagion is therefore not recoverable as "damage sustained in case of bodily injury" under the Montreal Convention. This logic is faulty, of course, because Doe's injury was an injury caused by a needle and was not the same as the injury that a sterilized toothpick would have caused, even if arguably similar. We will discuss this more fully in Section III.A, infra .) The parties reached a settlement as to these de minimis damages, and the parties agreed to a "Stipulation and Order of Dismissal with Prejudice," so that Plaintiffs could immediately appeal the district court's partial-summary-judgment order.

We first discuss, in Section III, whether the district court erred in holding that Doe's mental-anguish damages were not recoverable under Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention, and—after analyzing both the plain text of the treaty and relevant persuasive authorities—we conclude that the district court did so err. Then, in Section IV, because the Montreal Convention provides rules for liability but looks to local law for the measure of damages, we conduct a choice-of-law analysis and hold that Michigan damages law governs both the amount of any damages Etihad comes to owe Doe and the ability of Doe's husband to recover loss-of-consortium damages.


The parties agree that Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention, a multilateral treaty to which the United States is a signatory, provides Plaintiffs' only avenue for recovery against Etihad. See Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air, art. 17, May 28, 1999, S. Treaty Doc. 106-45, ICAO Doc. No. 9740, 1999 WL 33292734 (entered into force Nov. 4, 2003) (Montreal Convention). More than 125 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have signed, ratified, or acceded to the Montreal Convention since 1999.

The interpretation of a treaty is a question of law that we review de novo. United States v. Page , 232 F.3d 536, 540 (6th Cir. 2000). Under the Supremacy Clause, treaties are "the supreme Law of the Land." U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. Neither our court nor the Supreme Court has yet interpreted any provision of the Montreal Convention. The Warsaw Convention (the Montreal Convention's longstanding predecessor treaty),...

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