A Sydney court, in a suit by a passenger against Singapore Airlines (SIA), has affirmed the standing rule that no damages can be claimed against an airline for psychological injuries caused on a flight.
Justice Michael Adams of the New South Wales Supreme Court said he was bound by the Warsaw Convention, which deals with injuries caused to air passengers and limits such impairments to bodily and not psychological injuries.
Australia is a signatory to the Warsaw Convention, as are many other countries, including Singapore.
Mr Emile Halime had sued for the psychological injury he claimed to have suffered on an SIA flight 22 years ago.
He alleged seeing an engine on fire on a flight from Athens to Singapore on May 28, 1992.
"It may be readily accepted that he was terrified of what he thought would or might happen, and for present purposes, I accept that he has significant psychological effects from the experience," said Justice Adams, in judgment grounds released last week.
The judge noted that a similar suit was made against SIA in 1996 by a passenger on the same flight.
In that earlier suit, a passenger named Ms Kotsambasis, who was seated on the left side of the plane when facing the front, said she saw smoke coming from an engine on the starboard, or opposite, side.
There was then an announcement in the cabin that there was an engine problem, the plane would be returning to Athens and fuel had to be jettisoned. The plane landed an hour after take-off, at 3.23am.
The judge in that case had also accepted her evidence that she was distressed, anxious and had suffered a severe fright.
But the New South Wales Court of Appeal held that she could not claim for the psychological injury suffered, based on its interpretation of the Warsaw Convention.
Justice Adams said the appeals court's decision was binding on him, and a litigant's sole right to compensation is defined by the convention and not any other law. He added that the claim should have been brought within two years of the incident unless the court granted approval for a time extension.
Rodyk & Davidson lawyer Edric Pan pointed out that the Warsaw Convention states the carrier is liable for death, wounding or "any other bodily injury" suffered by passengers.
"It should be noted that the convention does not specifically exclude liability for psychological injury, but case law over the years has largely held that pure psychological injury in the absence of any physical injury is not a 'bodily injury' under the convention."
He clarified that the Warsaw Convention has now been superseded by the Montreal Convention of 1999, which has been ratified by many countries, including Singapore and Australia.
The newer convention "still provides that the air carrier shall be liable for death or 'bodily injury' of passengers", he noted.
"In view of the prevailing case law interpreting the words 'bodily injury' under the conventions, it would appear that a passenger who has suffered purely psychological injury would not have any recourse against the airline," he added.
This article was first published on Dec 9, 2014.
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