OA can be liable for asthma, smoke death, US court says

WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Olympic Airways can be held liable for the death of a passenger from a severe asthma attack caused by exposure to secondhand smoke. The 6-2 ruling was a defeat for the Greek carrier that challenged a $1.4 million award against it in the case of a 52-year-old doctor from California who died on a 1998 flight from Athens to New York. The airline had argued that it cannot be held liable under the Warsaw Convention, an international treaty on airline liability, when a passenger’s pre-existing medical condition has been aggravated in the aircraft cabin. The US Justice Department disagreed. It said an airline’s unreasonable refusal to assist a passenger who becomes ill during an international flight, in violation of its own policies and industry standards, can lead to liability. The case involved Dr Abid Hanson. After boarding the flight in Athens, Hanson and his family discovered they were in non-smoking seats near the smoking section, which was not separated by a partition. A flight attendant repeatedly rejected requests from Hanson’s daughter to move him to a different seat. The attendant said the flight was full, even though there were 11 empty seats. After Hanson died on the plane, his family sued and claimed his death stemmed from a severe asthma attack caused by inhaling secondhand smoke. The airline argued that his death stemmed from an allergic reaction to food or some other medical problem unrelated to the smoke. A federal court in California determined that smoke exposure was the primary cause of death, said the flight attendant’s actions amounted to «willful misconduct,» and awarded the family $1.4 million in damages. A US appeals court in San Francisco upheld the decision. It said the flight attendant’s failure to assist Hanson fell within the treaty’s definition of an «accident» for which the airline can be held liable. The high court upheld the decision awarding the $1.4 million in damages. Justice Clarence Thomas said the conduct at issue constituted an «accident» under the treaty and the airline can be held liable due to its unusual and unexpected refusal to assist a passenger. Justices Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O’Connor dissented. Scalia said appellate courts in Australia and Britain have issued decisions in the past year at odds with the high court’s holding.