Juris Doctor Candidate, 2016
Valparaiso University Law
In the airline industry, it’s not uncommon for an airline that sells international tickets to arrange for another airline to handle service over part of the route. But if that bridge airline experiences a substantial delay, who is responsible for the resulting damages to the passengers?
On February 4, 2016, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals consolidated two appeals dealing with this exact situation in Baumeister v. Deutsche Lufthansa, AG. Both cases dealt with the liability stemming from bridge carriers, and in both cases the plaintiffs’ appeals were denied.
In the first case, German plaintiff Baumeister had purchased a ticket from Lufthansa Airlines to fly from Stuttgart, Germany to San Francisco, California. He also had a connecting flight to Munich, Germany, operated by a now-defunct regional German airline called Augsburg Airways. The Ausburg flight was cancelled, however, and Lufthansa was forced to substitute transportation for the passengers.
Baumeister finally made it to San Francisco, but 17 hours later than expected. He then sued in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, claiming that under a certain European Union regulation, Lufthansa was contractually obligated for the damages arising from the flight’s delay.
Judge Richard Posner viewed the regulation (comically citing to Wikipedia), and determined that even if Baumeister could sue to enforce a foreign regulation in the United States, he had sued the wrong company. The European Regulation placed liability on the operating carrier whose flight was delayed or cancelled, which in this case was Augsburg, not Lufthansa. As a result, Baumeister had no claim against Lufthansa, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment.
The second case involved an American couple (the Varsamises) who purchased roundtrip tickets from Dallas, Texas to Venice, Italy, whose connecting flight in Rome was delayed. The company that sold the tickets was American Airlines, but the operating airline for the delayed flight was a Spanish airline named Iberia. The Varsamises eventually made it back to Dallas 21 hours later than expected, and sued Iberia in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The Varsamises claimed that Iberia had breached their contract by allowing the flight to be delayed, and as a result they were entitled to damages from that delay. However, as Judge Posner noted, the contract was between the Varsamises and American Airlines, not Iberia. As a result, the Varsamises had no reason or standing to sue Iberia for breach of contract. The Seventh Circuit then affirmed the lower court’s decision granting summary judgment.
These two cases demonstrated the difficulty of determining liability, especially when that liability is affected by foreign and international regulations. And in an ever-increasingly globalized society, cases involving airline liability will likely only get murkier, so it’s important to stay informed when your next flight may be delayed.