A closer look at cases for damages against airlines
Sometime last week, news outlets reported that the Regional Trial Court of Mandaue City has issued a decision against Cebu Pacific Air in a complaint filed by a passenger for breach of obligation to transport, inconvenience, serious anxiety, physical suffering, and sleepless nights. The court ordered the airline to pay the passenger moral damages of P200,000, exemplary damages of P200,000, and P100,000 for attorney’s and litigation expenses.
In his complaint, Provincial Board Member Glenn Soco alleged that he was supposed to board a flight from Manila to Cebu in 2011, with a confirmed ticket and flight schedule. While in line at NAIA Terminal 3 with the other passengers, he was informed by ground crew that he could not be accommodated on the flight because it was overbooked and no more seats were available. While he was seeking clarification from the airline staff, other passengers in line were already egging him to step aside so the line could move on.
While this case may still go all the way up to the Supreme Court, what surprised me was the number of times I heard people discussing this case in social situations, which implies that many air passengers can relate to the experience of Mr. Soco.
It would then be of interest to the public to know how the Supreme Court has in the past ruled in claims against airlines by aggrieved passengers.
There is this case of Dr. and Mrs. Miranda, who travelled to the USA for a month. On their return flight to Manila, their baggage was offloaded in Honolulu to make room for other passengers, which delayed their arrival in Manila. This then caused them to miss their flight from Manila to Cebu. From Manila, the couple flew to Cebu for their connecting flight to Surigao, but their flights to Surigao were cancelled and they had to stay in Cebu. The airline misrepresented that their hotel of choice, the Cebu Plaza Hotel, was fully booked and, their bags were sent to Surigao, leaving them without personal belongings in Cebu. (PAL vs. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 119641, May 17, 1996)
In another case, Mr. Grino was to participate in a golf tournament in Jakarta with a stopover in Singapore. Singapore Airlines refused his check-in as their tickets were supposedly not endorsed by PAL contrary to the advice of PAL. PAL’s airport office was closed, which left him and his group stranded. This forced him to buy another plane ticket to get to Jakarta, but not before experiencing “panic, humiliation, embarrassment, mental anguish, anxiety, fear and distress” which resulted in his not being able to participate in the golf tournament. (PAL vs. Grino, et al., G.R. No. 149547. July 04, 2008)
Then there is the case of the spouses Fernando, Elite members of Northwest Airlines, who booked tickets to the USA and back to the Philippines.
The Fernando family travelled to the USA via Northwest Airlines for a family reunion and to attend to business. US immigration asked Mr. Fernando to validate his return ticket to the Philippines, and despite him being an Elite Platinum World member and his explanations that he had two tickets one of which he did not yet use, the airline staff just glanced at his ticket without validating it. This led US immigration to allow him only 12 days of stay instead of six months, and he had to return to the Philippines after 12 days and purchase another ticket to go back to the USA after.
On the return trip to Manila, the Fernando family were prevented from boarding their flight, as Northwest personnel demanded paper tickets instead of their electronic tickets. Due to the delay, their flight left without them. It was found that in their interactions with the airline staff, the Fernandos were treated disrespectfully. (Sps. Fernando vs. Northwest Airlines Inc., G.R. No. 212038. February 08, 2017)
In these cases, the Supreme Court ordered the airlines to pay damages to the passengers for breach of the contract of carriage.
Entities engaged in the business of transporting passengers or goods offering their services to the public are common carriers. When an airline issues a ticket to a passenger confirmed for a particular flight there is a contract of carriage, and the passenger has every right to expect that he would travel on that flight. If that does not happen, the carrier opens itself to a suit for breach of contract. The aggrieved passenger does not have to prove that the common carrier was at fault or negligent. The mere existence of the contract and non-performance by the airline entitles the passenger to damages.
Common carriers are bound to observe extraordinary diligence and vigilance over the goods, the safety of their passengers, and to carry the passengers safely as far as human care and foresight can provide, using the utmost diligence of a very cautious person. (Articles 1732, 1733 and 1755, Civil Code)
In cases of suits against airlines, here are some important concepts.
1. Standard of extraordinary diligence
Passengers have a right to be treated by the airline’s common employees with kindness, respect, courtesy, due consideration and to be protected against personal misconduct, injurious language, indignities and abuses from its employees.
The law and courts require the standard of extraordinary diligence, which is the highest possible degree of diligence, from airlines and this creates a presumption of negligence against the airlines. Airlines are expected to control their employees, tame their reckless instincts and force them to take adequate care of human beings and their property. (G.R. No. 212038. February 08, 2017)
2. The concept of bad faith
Fraud or bad faith by airlines, through their employees, gives passengers the right to claim damages. This is defined as a breach of a known duty through some motive of interest or ill will. Self-enrichment or fraternal interest, and not personal ill will, may have been the motive, but it is malice nevertheless. (G.R. No. 119641, May 17, 1996)
It is not simply bad judgment or negligence but a dishonest purpose or some conscious doing of a wrong. (G.R. No. 212038. February 08, 2017); and
The lack of care on the part of the carrier resulting in the failure of the passenger to be accommodated amounts to bad faith or fraud which entitles the passengers to damages. (Ortigas, Jr. v. Lufthansa German Airlines (G.R. No. L-28773, June 30, 1975)
3. Warsaw Convention (now Montreal Convention)
Passengers may be familiar with the printed terms and conditions of their tickets which may make mention of the Warsaw Convention, now Montreal Convention, which provides the limits of liability and actions against airlines.
While the convention is a treaty that has the force and effect of law in the Philippines, it does not operate as an exclusive enumeration of the instances for declaring an airline liable for breach of contract or as an absolute limit of that liability. It does not exclude the operation of the Civil Code and pertinent laws and does not exempt the carrier from liability for damages for violating the rights of its passengers, especially when there is misconduct on the part of the carrier’s employees. (G.R. No. 119641, May 17, 1996)
In the case of PAL vs. Grino, the court disregarded the two-year prescriptive period for filing a case before the courts. This decision was based on the airlines’ failure to transport Mr. Grino from Singapore to Jakarta which caused him distress, fear, anxiety and humiliation. Despite assurances from PAL that Singapore Airlines had confirmed his passage, he was prevented from boarding the plane. Moreover, the PAL office in Singapore was closed raising the fear and anxiety that the passenger would be stranded in the airport. (G.R. No. 149547. July 04, 2008)
Here’s hoping none of us ever has to go so far as to file a claim for damages against an airline, but the foregoing concepts may be useful to know just in case. Happy flying!
(The author, Atty. John Philip C. Siao, is a practicing lawyer and founding Partner of Tiongco Siao Bello & Associates Law Offices, teaches law at the MLQU School of Law, and an Arbitrator of the Construction Industry Arbitration Commission of the Philippines. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone.)