by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | October 01, 2004

Every once in a while, I like to check in on how the courts are handling the travel and meetings industries. Several recent cases I’ve been following lend some healthful guidance to meeting professionals, whether planner or supplier.

In a case argued in the southern district of Texas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that injuries suffered on an international flight from Houston to London were not the responsibility of Continental Airlines for failing to warn passengers of the dangers of staying sedentary during a long flight. The complainant had sued under Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention, which outlines carriers’ responsibilities to passengers on international flights.
    The plaintiff had suffered an episode of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) meaning a blood clot formed during flight and traveled to his brain resulting in a cerebral stroke that left him permanently debilitated.
    The Warsaw Convention holds airlines liable for injury or death if an accident caused the damage. The question here was whether an accident had caused the case of DVT. The court held that no accident had occurred, even though Continental at the time had not added DVT warnings to its battery of preflight instructions to passengers.
    Generally the law requires that people be warned of potential maladies that might occur if they do or do not take certain actions. What is important about this case is the court’s strict interpretation of the definition of “accident.” Here, the court found that industry standards, even though other airlines did provide advice on DVT, were not comprehensive enough to lead to a conclusion that the injuries were caused by an accident.
    The court went on to observe that the warnings required to be made by an airline are those that are set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration and no others. Since this was not a mandated warning, there could be no liability, and the Appellate Court dismissed the case.
    After this decision was rendered, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case that also invoked Article 17, saying the failure to take reasonable steps to prevent injury or death does make the airline liable for damages. While this case centered on a passenger who died of an asthma attack after asking to be moved farther from the smoking section, the Court’s interpretation of the word “accident” in the Warsaw Convention might change how subsequent DVT lawsuits are argued.
    Aside from remembering to get up and move around during an international flight, what can industry professionals learn from these cases? During events, attendees who might participate in any activity that might carry some danger should be provided adequate warning consistent with industry standards. Otherwise, the host organization might be found liable of failing to notify.

Following on the heels of the DVT case have been issues as to whether the practice of having defibrillators on hand at hotels and other meetings facilities should become standard. The common finding has been there is no requirement to make defibrillators available, even when others in the industry are doing so.

    Nevertheless, many meeting professionals today have been trained on how to handle the machines. Planners might want to go further and require people who are providing services at meetings to indicate whether they have received training in CPR and on defibrillators. This way planners can make sure there will be at least a few people interacting with attendees who can handle such an emergency.