The instant judgement of the Supreme Court of England, titled Stott (Appellant) v Thomas Cook Tour Operators Ltd (Respondents)  UKSC 15 stresses that even though European law can protect disability rights, where it conflicts with international convention, the international convention will prevail, not the European legislation. The case highlights the need to revisit the Montreal Convention, since this convention was drafted in an era when disability advocacy wasn't firmed in the policy framework as it exist today. The Court though accepted that there was a breach of duty on the part of respondents, however, since the international convention did not provide for the kind of relief of damages sought on the grounds of disability discrimination, the same could not be granted.
The respondents argued that the Montreal Convention (“the Convention”), an international treaty which governs the liability of air carriers in international carriage by air, precluded a damages award for injury to feelings. Under Articles 17 and 29 of the Convention, damages can only be awarded for harm to passengers in cases of death or bodily injury.
Brief of the Case:
Mr and Mrs Stott decided to take a holiday in Zante, Greece, in September 2008. Mr Stott is paralysed from the shoulders down and a permanent wheelchair user. He has double incontinence and uses a catheter. When travelling by air, he depends on his wife to manage his incontinence, help him to eat, and change his sitting position.
Mr Stott booked return flights with Thomas Cook Tour Operators Ltd (“Thomas Cook”), a tour operator and air carrier. He telephoned Thomas Cook’s helpline twice, informing them that he had paid to be seated with his wife, and was assured that this would happen. However, on arrival at check-in for the return journey, Mr and Mrs Stott were told that they would not be seated together. They protested, but were eventually told that the seat allocations could not be changed.
Mr Stott had difficulties in boarding the aircraft, and was not sufficiently assisted by Thomas Cook staff. He felt extremely embarrassed, humiliated, and angry. He was eventually helped into his seat, with his wife sitting behind him. This arrangement was problematic, since Mrs Stott could not properly assist her husband during the three hour and twenty minute flight. She had to kneel or crouch in the aisle to attend to his personal needs, obstructing the cabin crew and other passengers. The cabin crew made no attempt to ease their difficulties.
Mr Stott, assisted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, brought a claim under the Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2007 (SI 2007/1895) (“the UK Regulations”), which implement EC disability rights regulations (“the EC Regulations”). The UK Regulations enable civil proceedings in UK courts for breaches of the EC Regulations, and state that compensation awarded may include sums for injury to feelings. The EC Regulations require Community air carriers (among other things) to make reasonable efforts to provide accompanying persons with a seat next to a disabled person. Mr Stott claimed that Thomas Cook had breached this duty, and sought a declaration and damages for injury to his feelings.
Thomas Cook argued that it had made reasonable efforts and that the Montreal Convention (“the Convention”), an international treaty which governs the liability of air carriers in international carriage by air, precluded a damages award for injury to feelings. Under Articles 17 and 29 of the Convention, damages can only be awarded for harm to passengers in cases of death or bodily injury.
The judge at trial found that Thomas Cook had breached the UK Regulations, and made a declaration to that effect. However, he held that the Convention prevented him from making any damages award to Mr Stott. The Court of Appeal agreed. Mr Stott appealed, arguing that his claim was (i) outside the substantive scope of the Convention, since the Convention did not touch the issue of equal access to air travel which are governed by the EC Regulations and (ii) outside the temporal scope of the Convention, since Thomas Cook’s failure to make all reasonable efforts began before Mr and Mrs Stott boarded the aircraft. He relied on EU cases discussing a different EU Regulation which required compensation and assistance for The passengers in the event of cancellations and delays: the European Court had held that this Regulation was not incompatible with the Convention. The Secretary of State for Transport intervened to support Mr Stott’s claim on the second (temporal) ground.
The Supreme Court of England unanimously dismisses the appeal. The judgment of the Court is given by Lord Toulson, with a concurring judgment by Lady Hale. Mr Stott was treated in a humiliating and disgraceful manner by Thomas Cook. However, his claim falls within the substantive and temporal scope of the Convention, and as a result damages cannot be awarded for injury to feelings. Substantively, the Convention deals comprehensively with the carrier’s liability for physical incidents involving passengers between embarkation and disembarkation. The fact that Mr Stott’s claim involves an EU law right makes no difference. Temporally, Mr Stott’s claim is for damages and distress suffered in the course of embarkation and flight, and these fall squarely within the temporal scope of the Convention. It is not enough that the operative causes began prior to boarding.
Reasons for the Judgement
The only true question in the case is whether Mr Stott’s claim falls within the scope of the Montreal Convention. There is no dispute between Mr Stott and Thomas Cook as to the interpretation of the EC Regulations or UK Regulations, or their compatibility with the Convention. The EU cases do not assist: that other Regulation concerned general standardised measures, and the European Court had recognised that any claim for individualised damages would be subject to the Convention. The case raised no question of European law [54-59].
On substantive scope: the Convention was intended to deal comprehensively with the liability of the air carrier for whatever might physically happen to passengers between embarkation or disembarkation. The fact that Mr Stott’s claim relates to disability discrimination makes no difference. The underlying difficulty is that the Montreal Convention and its predecessors long predated equality laws. It is unfair that someone suffering as Mr Stott had could not obtain any compensation, but that is the plain meaning of the Convention. It would be desirable for the states parties to the Convention to consider its amendment. It is also possible that the Civil Aviation Authority could take other enforcement actions against Thomas Cook [61-64].
On temporal scope: the operative causes of Mr Stott’s treatment undoubtedly began at check-in, prior to embarkation. However, this is not enough. Mr Stott’s claim is for damages for the humiliation and distress that Mr Stott had suffered during the course of the flight, which fall squarely within the Convention period of exclusivity. To hold otherwise would encourage deft pleading and would circumvent the purpose of the Convention .
In her concurring judgment, Lady Hale considers it disturbing that the Convention excludes damages claims for breaches of individuals’ fundamental rights. It is particularly unsettling that this applies not only to private air carriers such as Thomas Cook, but also to state airlines. A treaty which contravened a fundamental international law norm would be void. Torture is a fundamental norm of this kind, and race discrimination might be another. There is a respectable view that Mr Stott’s treatment would, under the European Convention on Human Rights, constitute inhuman and degrading treatment (“IDT”). However, it appears that IDT has not yet become a fundamental international law norm. Since Thomas Cook is not a state air carrier, these issues do not arise in this case. At the very least, however, the grave injustice done to those in Mr Stott’s position should be addressed by the parties to the Convention [67-70].
Related Review by Ms. Catherine Leech
Disabled persons’ rights not protected by International Law when travelling by air
A recent case in the Supreme Court has demonstrated that in some circumstances, even though European law can protect disability rights, where it conflicts with international convention, the international convention will prevail, not the European legislation.
The claimant in this case, Mr Stott, had booked with Thomas Cook to fly to Zante and had telephoned their helpline to ask and advise that he paid to sit next to his wife so that she could assist him during the flight. He was assured that they would be seated together. However, when they arrived at check-in, they were told that it would not be possible. Upon boarding the aircraft, Mr Stott's wheelchair overturned but he didn't receive appropriate assistance. He was then seated in front of his wife, which made it difficult for her to assist him. Relying on European law [Civil Aviation (Access to Air Travel for Disabled Persons and Persons with Reduced Mobility) Regulations 2007] Mr Stott argued that Thomas Cook were in breach of its duty in their efforts to give his wife a seat next to him. The judge accepted that they had breached their duty, but that unfortunately the regulations, which are part of European law, were incompatible with the more powerful International treaty [Montréal Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air 1999}. Consequently, the judge was unable to make an award of damages because the Montréal Convention permits an award of damages, only in very specific and defined circumstances, which would not include this disability discrimination and hurt to his feelings.
Hearing the case, the Supreme Court concluded that the Montréal Convention was indeed the piece of law that trumped all others in respect of an event which occurred on an aircraft, between embarkation and disembarkation, in the course of aviation transport. Once the Montréal Convention is the governing law, the court in England (and Europe) cannot look beyond that to other pieces of legislation, which are not international. To provide a remedy on the basis of current law is impossible. It would need the Convention to be amended.
The Supreme Court held that the claim for damages for failing to properly provide for the needs of the disabled passenger was not envisaged by the convention, but because it occurred in the course of aviation travel, which the convention covers. The convention being intended to deal comprehensively with the liability of the air carrier for anything that physically might happen to passengers between embarkation and disembarkation, was not open to the court to find a way round the convention for this claimant. They agreed that it seemed unfair that Mr Stott or somebody like him who suffered ill-treatment of the kind, should be denied compensation and the fact that they had declared the air carrier in breach, was a small comfort. The underlying problem, however, is that the predecessor of the Montréal Convention, which was the Warsaw Convention dating back to the 1920s, long predated equality law and therefore this type of situation was never envisaged in the original drafting. The Supreme Court said that there was a good argument to say the convention should now be amended to take into account the development of equality rights, but any amendment would have to be agreed by all of the contracting parties internationally.
The Montréal Convention requires revisiting. Because of its antiquated origins, it is out of touch with modern society. Not only excluding appropriate remedies in respect of disabled passengers, even where (as in this case) the court identifies that the carrier has treated the passenger inappropriately, but it also excludes claims in respect of the sort of psychological harm, which has long been recognised medically. It provides an exclusive remedy, that in failing to address issues which are excluded from the convention, it provides no remedy at all and denies access to justice for various classes of genuine claimants to suffer a genuine wrong. It is surely time for this piece of legislation to be given a complete overhaul. The origins of the Montréal Convention are almost 100 years old. In this time, travel has expanded and increased beyond measure and society has developed an increasing sophistication with regard to psychiatric injury and human rights in general. An international convention which excludes a remedy to genuinely affected individuals, is not worth the paper it is written on. This is definitely something we should lobby politicians to revisit.
For Mr Stott, it is scant comfort for the Supreme Court and the courts lower down, to confirm that he has been inappropriately treated. The airlines will know that they are untouchable in law, however inappropriately they may treat disabled people or people with reduced mobility. One thing that is clear in other aspects of personal injury law, whether this relates to employers liability or clinical negligence, is the increase in safety for the public and an awareness, before accidents happen, as people are aware that negligent mistakes will be actioned, making processes such as risk assessments, essential. The absence of any effective sanction, which is the effect that this judgement has had where the airlines are concerned, is a disincentive for them to treat such passengers with appropriate respect and consideration.
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