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Berguido v. Eastern Air Lines

decided: November 23, 1966.


Before Biggs, Chief Judge, and Kalodner and Forman, Circuit Judges.

Author: Forman


This is the second appeal to reach us in the wrongful death action brought by appellants in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, individually, as guardian and as executors of the estate of the deceased, Carlos Berguido, Jr. (hereinafter referred to as plaintiff, plaintiff-appellant, and appellant), against Eastern Air Lines (hereinafter referred to as defendant, defendant-appellee, and appellee). Decedent was a passenger for hire on a constellation that crashed near Imeson Airport, Jacksonville, Florida in the early morning of December 21, 1955.

Following two mistrials, a third trial, before a jury, resulted in a verdict for plaintiff. The jury found that the crash was the result of one or more acts of wilful misconduct on the part of the defendant. Defendant's attempt to limit its liability to $8300 under the Warsaw Convention*fn1 governing international airplane flights was thus defeated.*fn2 We reversed on evidentiary grounds.*fn3

A fourth trial, before a jury, produced a verdict for plaintiff, but only for the limited Warsaw Convention liability of $8300, this jury resolving the issue of wilful misconduct adversely to the plaintiff. However, upon plaintiff's motion, the District Court vacated its judgment and granted a new trial.*fn4 Defendant applied to this court for a writ of mandamus and prohibition, arguing that the District Court had exceeded its power in granting the new trial. We denied the writ*fn5 as well as a petition for reargument.*fn6

The case was then scheduled for its fifth trial. The posture of the case was as it was at the previous trials. Defendant, having pleaded the Warsaw Convention, was attempting to limit its liability to $8300,*fn7 while plaintiff's main efforts were directed at proving either that the decedent's flight was not international, or that defendant was guilty of wilful misconduct so as to otherwise eliminate the Warsaw Convention defense. The plaintiff had presented alternate theories of defendant's wilful misconduct. It was urged by plaintiff that the pilot of the Eastern constellation had attempted a 'sneak-in' landing -- dropping down through a low cloud ceiling into a position below the authorized Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach minimum elevation. This theory was developed by plaintiff through the presentation of hypothetical questions to experts, Glickstein, Kepner and Cann. Plaintiff's alternative theory was that both the pilot and the co-pilot operating the aircraft had submarginal heart conditions. Medical records were introduced in support of this theory.

Plaintiff alleges that it also urged that defendant had not met its obligations under Article 3(1) of the Convention*fn8 and, thus, the Convention did not apply. Plaintiff appears to indicate that the District Court was thus urged in the alternative to try the case on the theory of simple negligence.

The parties waived trial by jury. They also agreed that the District Court need not enter findings of fact and conclusions of law, which are required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) in non-jury cases. The parties further specified that the District Court might limit its decision to a general finding either for or against liability and in a single total sum fixing damages, just as a jury would do. Despite the acquiescence by the parties to a short form of disposition, not authorized by the Federal Rules, the District Court did file an opinion*fn9 in which it set forth findings of fact on certain aspects of its ruling.

Summarily determining the international nature of the flight, a finding which the plaintiff does not now contest, the bulk of the District Court's opinion is devoted to a discussion of whether the defendant was guilty of wilful misconduct. A discussion of whether defendant complied with Article 3(1) of the Warsaw Convention is absent, although the Convention was determined to be applicable. The District Court observed that this was a case where the evidence of wilful misconduct was meager and incomplete, making the search for truth a most difficult task. It stated that a considerable number and variety of causes of the accident were within the realm of possibility. The District Court observed further that in a case such as this, where the search is for the cause of the accident, the judgment of a court must be determined upon the probabilities insofar as they can be determined from the evidence, and not on a mere possibility, even if such possibility be disclosed by the evidence.

The above preliminary observations were followed by a statement of 'firm findings' which the District Court apparently considered facts found 'specially' conforming to the requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). The District Court found that there was not a preponderance of credible evidence that a health condition constituted wilful misconduct causing or contributing to the crash of the constellation. As to the 'sneak-in' theory, the District Court stated that it could not find as proven by the preponderance of the evidence all of the assumed facts stated in the hypothetical questions put to plaintiff's experts. But, even if all the assumed facts were taken to be proven, said the District Court, the conclusions reached by plaintiff's experts were not believable. Rather, the District Court chose to find that there was a substantial and reasonable probability that the presence of jet aircraft in or near the ILS glide slope for the Eastern constellation interfered with the aircraft, bringing about emergency conditions resulting in the accident, the theory of the defendant. The Court then concluded that defendant was guilty neither of wilful misconduct nor of negligence. Having previously found the Warsaw Convention applicable, judgment was entered against the defendant for $8300. Though finding against defendant's liability above $8300, the District Court indicated, albeit quite unnecessarily, that plaintiff had suffered $375,000 in damages.

-- I --

Prior to examining plaintiff-appellant's position on this appeal, a question of some moment is whether the District Court complied with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). The agreement between the parties, that the District Court need not enter findings of fact, is not effective. The requirement of Rule 52(a) is mandatory, the findings in part serving as a necessary aid to the appellate courts.*fn10 If a full understanding of the factual issues cannot be gleaned from the District Court's opinion, we would be obliged to remand for compliance with Rule 52(a).

Were the findings, as prepared, sufficient compliance with Rule 52(a)? Concerning plaintiff's theory of the submarginal heart conditions of the pilot and co-pilot, the single finding that there was no probable causal relationship shown between their heart conditions and the accident is ample to meet the requirement of Rule 52(a). The basis of the Court's ruling is clear and an examination of the record will reveal whether there is substantial support for it.

The District Court did not, however, comply with Rule 52(a) when it found, without further elaboration, that some of the assumed facts stated in the hypotheticals were not proven. But for the Court's further assuming the validity of all the facts in the hypotheticals for purposes of testing whether the defendant, even under those circumstances, was guilty of wilful misconduct, the failure to elaborate on the inadequacy of the hypotheticals would have been a fatal defect requiring a remand. The Court did find, however, that assuming the accuracy of the facts in the hypotheticals, plaintiff's expert witnesses, Glickstein, Kepner and Cann, drew a conclusion therefrom as to the probable cause of the accident that was not believable. Considerable effort was exercised by the Court in analyzing the basis for the refusal to accept their conclusion. Such elaboration qualifies the finding as sufficient under Rule 52(a), if indeed a specific finding by the trier of fact is needed when the issue is one of credibility.

As to the District Court's finding that jet aircraft in or near the ILS glide slope interfered with the Eastern constellation and, therefore, defendant was not guilty of wilful misconduct, this states a fact susceptible of examination by an appellate court and thus is in compliance with Rule 52(a).

As an initial matter we conclude, therefore, that the requirements of Rule 52(a) have been sufficiently met.*fn11 The findings of fact and conclusions of law may now be considered in the light of plaintiff-appellant's appeal contentions.

-- II --

Appellant now concedes the international nature of the flight and to this extent the applicability of the Warsaw Convention. It is contended for the first time, however, that the litigants to this suit, as well as most courts which have previously dealt with the question of liability under the Warsaw Convention, have labored under a misconception concerning the scheme of the Convention. Appellant urges a theory of unlimited absolute liability in the face of the appellee's alleged failure to comply with Article 3(1) of the Convention. It is argued that Article 17*fn12 provides for unlimited absolute liability unless a carrier 3(1). Appellee, urges appellant, having 3(1). Appellee, urges appellant, having failed to carry its burden of proof is, as a matter of law, liable without fault for the total amount of appellant's damages, under Article 17 of the Convention. Specifically, appellant contends that appellee has failed to prove both actual delivery of the ticket to the decedent and actual delivery of an adequate ticket showing (1) all agreed stopping places and (2) the provisions of the Convention which limit a carrier's liability. Although appellant's contention is that the burden of proof is on the carrier, an attempt is also made by appellant to affirmatively show the inadequacy of the ticket, although not the failure to actually deliver that ticket. However, failing acceptance of this approach, appellant urges that the District Court's finding of no wilful misconduct by the appellee was clearly erroneous.

Appellee contends that the issue of compliance with Article 3(1) of the Convention was eliminated from the case at pre-trial and that, nevertheless, a plaintiff, and not a carrier-defendant, has the burden of proving non-compliance with Article 3(1). Actual non-delivery of the ticket under Article 3(2) is also urged as the only Article 3(1) conduct of a carrier which will defeat the Convention as a defense. As to the question of wilful misconduct, appellee urges that there was substantial basis for the District Court's exonerating it therefrom. Appellee furthermore cross-assigns as error the District Court's grant of the motion for a new trial subsequent to the jury verdict in its favor at the fourth trial, which resulted in the fifth trial from which this appeal has been taken.

The contentions thus having been outlined, we now turn to their disposition.

-- III --

Appellant has urged that both Grey v. American Airlines*fn13 and Westminster Bank v. Imp. Airways, Ltd.*fn14 stand for the proposition that liability under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, as an initial matter, is absolute and unlimited. To avoid such liability a carrier must demonstrate compliance with Article 3(1) of the Convention, argues appellant. Neither case supports the proposition, for the question of whether Article 17 provides such unlimited absolute liability for the death of a passenger was not an issue therein. Furthermore, in the first appeal before this court, Judge McLaughlin, though not faced squarely with the issue as here raised, in effect disposed of it by appropriately reading Articles 17 and 22(1)*fn15 in pari materia. It was thus stated:

'* * * The Warsaw Convention provides, inter alia, that the carrier is absolutely liable for all injuries where the accident causing the damage so sustained took place on board the aircraft. Article 17. In such circumstances the liability of the carrier for each passenger is limited to 125,000 francs (approximately $8300). Article 22(1). * * *'*fn16

Article 17 itself gives no indication of the extent of a carrier's liability. It must be read with Article 22(1) for the question concerning the extent of the liability to be answered, and an analysis of the question does not support absolute unlimited liability as the scheme of the Convention.

Having thus disposed of this contention, appellant must sustain either (1) its argument that the District Court erroneously found that the appellee was free from wilful misconduct or (2) its argument that there had not been compliance with Article 3(1) of the Convention. Success of the latter argument would have removed the Convention defense of limited liability and allowed the suit to proceed to trial, with the plaintiff's burden being merely to prove the negligence of the defendant, rather than wilful misconduct, this approach being the appropriate substitute for appellant's urged absolute and unlimited liability without fault theory.

Such contention, revolving around a construction of Article 3(1), raises the more specific issues of (a) which party has the burden of proof to show compliance or a failure thereof, (b) whether the issue as framed by appellant was eliminated at pre-trial, (c) whether the record before us is sufficient to allow us to dispose of the merits of the mixed questions, and (d) if the record is ample, whether appellee has complied with Article 3(1) and what are the legal ramifications if it has not done so.*fn17

Appellant submits that its position relative to Article 3(1) must be sustained, that it proved negligence, and that, therefore, this court should remand for entry of judgment in the amount of $375,000 as found by the District Court. The District Court, however, as well as finding that appellee was not guilty of wilful misconduct, found that appellee was not even negligent. If this conclusion is supportable, it is final and there is no need for us to examine appellant's legal contentions concerning Article 3(1) of the Convention, which we have ...

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