Malaysian Air Tragedy and the Montreal Convention

Not long ago, few Americans were familiar with Malaysian Airlines. Now, of course, they have been in the headlines for months with two tragic stories in less than five months. Since the most recent tragedy, people throughout our region have been asking our law firm about the legal rights of victims after an aviation accident on an international scale. This post will provide some brief answers.

A Focus on the Victims

There are hundreds of news reports that we could cite for a quick explanation of the story, but a CNN report stands out for its focus on the life stories of some of the deceased victims. As CNN summarizes, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 crashed after being shot down on Thursday July 17, 2014. All 298 people onboard were killed.

Victims of this tragedy include 193 Dutch citizens (the intended route was the Netherlands to Malaysia), a number that includes the single American who had dual citizenship, and 43 people from Malaysia. They include a nun, a champion athlete, an AIDS activist, restaurant owners, students, and businesspeople. Please take a look at their stories and faces; too often, the victims' stories are lost in the shuffle after a tragedy.

The Montreal Convention: A Treaty Addressing Compensation for International Air Tragedies

What is the liability of an airline after an international incident causes a crash? The key piece of relevant legislation is the 1999 Montreal Convention, an international treaty created to make a uniform set of rules dealing with international travel and international shipping. Prior to the Convention, victims needed to prove willful neglect in order to recover damages following an international air tragedy.

The treaty sought to better protect air travelers and reduce costly and lengthy legal disputes by making a carrier liable to the victims of an international air disaster for claims up to 113,100 Special Drawing Rights ("SDR"). SDR is a monetary figure based on a mix of currency values and a currency converter puts 113,100 SDR at around $174,000. The Airlines would almost certainly owe the maximum amount per passenger and it would be due regardless of whether the carrier is found to be at fault.

The Convention does allow victims to pursue claims beyond the 113,100 SDR amount. For these higher claims, negligence becomes an issue and an airline must show it was not negligent or that a third-party's negligence was wholly to blame. Notably, this is the reverse of a typical civil claim in the U.S. where the burden of proof rests on the claimant to prove liability.

In this case, Malaysian Airlines would probably need to show that their choice of flight path was reasonable. This would likely inspire a fierce debate with the carrier pointing out that flying over conflict zones is not unusual while claimants argue that the air path was a negligent decision, possibly one motivated by money.

From international incidents to local accidents, from large passenger jets to small two-seaters or helicopters, and from in-flight injuries to deadly crashes, aviation law is a complex arena filled with special rules. It is certainly not a field where any claimant should "go it alone." If you are hurt or lose family in an aviation incident, do not sign anything without consulting an attorney. Call us for a free consultation.

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