El Al Israel Airlines, Ltd. v. Tsui Yuan Tseng
525 U.S. 155 (1999)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1998

Syllabus

EL AL ISRAEL AIRLINES, LTD. v. TSUI YUAN TSENG

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

No. 97-475. Argued November 10, 1998-Decided January 12, 1999

Before plaintiff/respondent Tseng boarded an El Al Israel Airlines flight from New York to Tel Aviv, El Al subjected her to an intrusive security search. Tseng sued El Al for damages in a New York state court, asserting a state-law personal injury claim for, inter alia, assault and false imprisonment, but alleging no bodily injury. El Al removed the case to the Federal District Court, which dismissed the claim on the basis of the treaty popularly known as the Warsaw Convention. Key Convention provisions declare that the treaty "appl[ies] to all international transportation of persons, baggage, or goods performed by aircraft for hire," Ch. I, Art. 1(1); describe three areas of air carrier liability, Ch. III, Arts. 17 (bodily injuries suffered as a result of an "accident ... on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking"), 18 (baggage or goods destruction, loss, or damage), and 19 (damage caused by delay); and instruct that "cases covered by article 17" "can only be brought subject to the conditions and limits set out in thEe] [C]onvention," Art. 24. Tseng's claim was not compensable under Article 17, the District Court stated, because Tseng sustained no bodily injury as a result of the search, and the Convention does not permit recovery for solely psychic or psychosomatic injury (citing Eastern Airlines, Inc. v. Floyd, 499 U. S. 530, 552). That court further concluded that Tseng could not pursue her claim, alternately, under New York tort law because Article 24 shields the carrier from liability for personal injuries not compensable under Article 17. Reversing in relevant part, the Second Circuit concluded first that no "accident" within Article 17's compass had occurred. In that court's view, the Convention drafters did not aim to impose close to absolute liability for an individual's personal reaction to "routine operating procedures," which, although inconvenient and embarrassing, are the price passengers pay for airline safety. The court next concluded that the Convention does not shield the same routine operating procedures from assessment under the diverse laws of signatory nations (and, in the case of the United States, States within one Nation) governing assault and false imprisonment. Article 24, the court said, precludes resort to local law only where the incident is "covered" by Article 17, i. e., where there has been an accident, either on the plane or in the course of embarking or disembarking,


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156 EL AL ISRAEL AIRLINES, LTD. v. TSUI YUAN TSENG

Syllabus

which led to bodily injury. The court found support in the drafting history of the Convention, which it construed to indicate that national law was intended to provide the passenger's remedy where the Convention did not expressly apply. In rejecting the argument that allowance of state-law claims when the Convention does not permit recovery would contravene the treaty's goal of uniformity, the Second Circuit read Zicherman v. Korean Air Lines Co., 516 U. S. 217, to instruct specifically that the Convention expresses no compelling interest in uniformity that would warrant supplanting an otherwise applicable body of law.

Held: The Warsaw Convention precludes a passenger from maintaining an action for personal injury damages under local law when her claim does not satisfy the conditions for liability under the Convention. Pp. 166-176.

(a) The Court's inquiry begins with Article 24, which provides that "cases covered by article 17"-in the governing French text, "les cas prevus it l'article 17"-may only be brought subject to the Convention's conditions and limits. The specific words of a treaty must be given a meaning consistent with the contracting parties' shared expectations. Air France v. Saks, 470 U. S. 392, 399. Moreover, the Court has traditionally considered as aids to a treaty's interpretation its negotiating and drafting history (travaux pnS,paratoires) and the postratification understanding of the contracting parties. Zicherman, 516 U. S., at 226. EI Al and the United States, as amicus curiae, urge that the Article 24 words, "les cas prevus it l'article 17," refer generically to all personal injury cases stemming from occurrences on board an aircraft or in embarking or disembarking, and serve to distinguish that class of cases (Article 17 cases) from cases which Articles 18 (baggage claims) and 19 (delay claims) address. So read, Article 24 precludes a passenger from asserting any air transit personal injury claims under local law, including claims that fail to satisfy Article 17's liability conditions, notably, because the injury did not result from an "accident," see Saks, 470 U. S., at 405, or because the "accident" did not result in physical injury or physical manifestation of injury, see Floyd, 499 U. S., at 552. The reasonable view of the Executive Branch concerning the meaning of an international treaty ordinarily merits respect, see Sumitomo Shoji America, Inc. v. Avagliano, 457 U. S. 176, 184-185, and in this case is most faithful to the Convention's text, purpose, and overall structure. Pp. 166-169.

(b) Recourse to local law would undermine the uniform regulation of international air carrier liability that the Convention was designed to foster. See, e. g., Floyd, 499 U. S., at 552. The Convention's signa-


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