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Buckwalter v. U.S. Airways, Inc.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 9, 2014

CYNTHIA BUCKWALTER and JOHN BUCKWALTER, h/w, Plaintiffs,
v.
US AIRWAYS, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Jeffrey L. Schmehl, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs, Cynthia Buckwalter and John Buckwalter, husband and wife, (“Plaintiffs”), brought the instant action, contending that Mrs. Buckwalter suffered personal injury while exiting a U.S. Airways (“Defendant”) plane via air stairs when another passenger descending the stairs behind Mrs. Buckwalter fell and knocked her onto the tarmac. Before the Court is Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiffs’ opposition thereto, and Defendant’s reply. For the following reasons, Defendant’s motion is denied.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment should be granted if the record, including pleadings, depositions, affidavits, and answers to interrogatories demonstrates “that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56(c). In making that determination, the “evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A fact is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law and “genuine” if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party based on the evidence presented on that issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

On February 20, 2011, Plaintiffs were passengers on U.S. Airways international flight 1209 from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to St. Maarten. (See Am. Compl. ¶ 13.) Upon arrival in St. Maarten, Plaintiffs disembarked using air stairs. (C. Buckwalter Dep., 19.) When Mrs. Buckwalter stepped onto the landing at the top of the air stairs, she was carrying only her purse, (C. Buckwalter Dep., 10, 33-34) and she held onto the railing. (C. Buckwalter Dep., 14, 19.) Mrs. Buckwalter did not request assistance from the crew during the deplaning process. (C. Buckwalter Dep. 33-34.)

Another passenger on the flight, M. Hallsted Christ, departed the plane after Mrs. Buckwalter but before Mr. Buckwalter. (C. Buckwalter Dep., 15; J. Buckwalter Dep. 99-100, 79.) Mr. Christ also did not request assistance from the flight crew during the deplaning process. (Christ Dep. 29.) As Mr. Christ was descending the air stairs behind Mrs. Buckwalter, he fell into her and knocked her onto the tarmac. (Christ Dep., 23, 33-34.) Mr. Christ does not know what caused him to fall, but testified that “I believe that if anything it was that I was just overloaded with my luggage.” (Christ Dep., 23.) Mrs. Buckwalter has no memory of her fall, nor did Mr. Buckwalter observe her fall. (C. Buckwalter Dep., 13-14, J. Buckwalter Dep., 78-82.) The air stairs were observed to be in “working condition, ” with no defects or abnormalities. (Stallman Dep., 166-167.) Mr. Buckwalter did not observe anything unusual about the stairs as he descended them behind his wife and Mr. Christ. (J. Buckwalter Dep., 100-101.)

IV. DISCUSSION

A. THERE IS A GENUINE ISSUE OF MATERIAL FACT AS TO WHETHER MRS. BUCKWALTER’S INJURIES WERE CAUSED BY AN “ACCIDENT.”

Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because the incident at issue here was not caused by an “accident” under the Montreal Convention, which presents the sole cause of action available to Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs argue that a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether or not the incident in question was an accident under the Convention, and therefore, summary judgment should be denied. For the reasons that follow, I find that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mrs. Buckwalter’s fall was an accident under the Montreal Convention; therefore, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

Plaintiffs’ claims are governed by the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (“the Montreal Convention”). The Montreal Convention “was the product of a United Nations effort to reform the Warsaw Convention ‘so as to harmonize the hodgepodge of supplementary amendments and intercarrier agreements to which the Warsaw Convention system of liability consists.’” Sompo Japan Insurance, Inc., v. Nippon Cargo Airlines Co., Ltd., 522 F.3d 776, 780 (7thCir. 2008) (quoting Ehrlich v. American Airlines, Inc., 360F.3d 366, 371 n. 4 (2nd Cir. 2004). The Montreal Convention “unifies and replaces” the Warsaw Convention. Id. at 789. Cases interpreting provisions of the Warsaw Convention apply to cases interpreting “substantively similar” provisions of the Montreal Convention. Best v. BWIA West Indies Airways Ltd., 581 F.Supp.2d 359 (E.D.N.Y. 2008).

Chapter II, Article 17 of the Montreal Convention states:

The carrier is liable 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 or in the course of ...

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