Doe v. Etihad Airways, P.J.S.C., 870 F.3d 406 (6th Cir. 2017)

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit


Plaintiff Jane Doe and her eleven-year-old daughter flew aboard Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi to Chicago. For the duration of the fourteen-hour journey, Doe’s tray table remained open in her lap because a knob that was meant to hold it in place had fallen to the floor. During the flight, Doe’s daughter found the knob on the floor and gave it to Doe, who placed it in a seatback pocket. When it came time to descend, an Etihad flight attendant (unaware of the detached knob) gave Doe the familiar reminder to place her tray table in the upright and locked position for landing. Doe, of course, could not comply. To aid in explaining her problem, she reached into the seatback pocket to retrieve the fallen knob. But when she stuck her hand into the pocket, she was unexpectedly pricked by a hypodermic needle that lay hidden within. She gasped, and the needle drew blood from her finger.

When Doe was pricked by the needle, the passenger seated in the aisle seat to her right heard Doe exclaim, “ouch,” and saw her finger bleeding. The Etihad flight attendant who had come to Doe’s seat picked up the needle and what was later determined to be its accompanying insulin syringe, both of which Doe had placed on her tray table. But the flight attendant then returned the items to the tray table and left to summon the assistance of her supervisor. Because the airplane had begun its descent, the flight attendants did not have access to the flight deck, which was where the only onboard sharps box was located, nor were the flight attendants permitted to call the flight deck absent a more pressing emergency.

The flight attendant returned with her supervisor. The flight attendant took the needle and syringe, placed them in an empty water bottle, capped the bottle, and later turned the bottle over to her cabin manager. The supervisor, meanwhile, gave Doe an antiseptic wipe, which Doe used to wipe her finger, and a Band-Aid, which the supervisor himself wrapped around her finger. The cabin manager wrote a report of the incident and told Doe that Etihad would contact her. A flight attendant recommended that Doe see a doctor, but Etihad provided no medical assistance other than the antiseptic wipe and Band-Aid.

The next day, Doe saw a family physician, who noted a “small needle poke” on Doe’s finger. Doe was prescribed medication for possible exposure to hepatitis, tetanus, and HIV, and she underwent several rounds of testing over the following year. Thankfully for Doe, all the tests came back negative. Nevertheless, Doe claims that she refrained from sexual intercourse with her husband and from sharing food with her daughter until one year after the incident, when her doctor told her that she could be certain that she had not contracted a disease from the needlestick.

Two days after the flight, Doe sent an email to Etihad to follow up because Etihad had neither sent her a copy of the incident report nor offered her any further assistance. One week later, Etihad replied by email to offer a “purely goodwill gesture” of “possible reimbursement” of Doe’s medical expenses, “without any admission of liability.” This litigation followed.


Whether the needle prick was sufficient, in terms of a bodily injury, to make available mental anguish damages under Article 17? It will be noted that the injury itself was trivial, being a small rupture to the skin. Rather, the claimed damages arose because of the nature of the instrument that ruptured the skin, rather than any actual damage done by the bodily injury itself.

From the opinion at II:

Doe declined to pursue a lost-earnings claim that she had pleaded in her complaint, leaving only her claim for the physical pain, suffering, and medical expenses caused by the needlestick, which the parties stipulated to be de minimis relative to the dismissed claims. (These de minimis damages include the physical pain and suffering from being pricked by the needle: the small hole in Doe’s finger and the “ouch,” so to speak. But they do not include any mental anguish arising from the fact that it was a stray needle and not, for example, a sterilized toothpick, that pricked Doe’s finger. The logic behind this distinction is that if something like a sterilized toothpick had caused Doe’s bodily injury, then Doe would not have had any reasonable fear of contagion, so Doe’s fear of contagion must arise from the fact that it was a needle that caused her injury, rather than arising from the injury itself, and Doe’s fear of contagion is therefore not recoverable as “damage sustained in case of bodily injury” under the Montreal Convention. This logic is faulty, of course, because Doe’s injury was an injury caused by a needle and was not the same as the injury that a sterilized toothpick would have caused, even if arguably similar.


At III, Circuit Judge Boggs:

To prevail on a claim for damages under Article 17(1), a plaintiff must prove that (1) there was an “accident,” defined as “an unexpected or unusual event or happening that is external to the passenger,” Saks, 470 U.S. at 405, 105 S.Ct. 1338; (2) the accident happened either “on board the aircraft” or during “the operations of embarking or disembarking”; and (3) the accident caused “death or bodily injury of a passenger.” The carrier is then liable for damage sustained, which we interpret to include emotional or mental damages, so long as they are traceable to the accident, regardless of whether they are caused directly by the bodily injury.

A simple example serves to illustrate our understanding. Consider a case in which an overhead bin unexpectedly opens in flight, causing a suitcase to fall out and strike a passenger in the eye. The passenger might sustain bodily injury—bruises, broken or fractured bones, a concussion, etc.—and the passenger might sustain mental anguish such as the fear of losing sight in the injured eye or a fear of being struck by flying objects. The “accident” would be the suitcase striking the passenger. (The faulty overhead bin or latch, like the airline’s failure to clean out the seatback pocket in Doe’s case, might be underlying negligence that precipitated the accident.) The accident happened on board the aircraft. And the accident caused bodily injury. Thus, the carrier would be liable for the passenger’s damage sustained as the result of being struck by the suitcase—including such mental anguish as fear of losing sight, even if the passenger ultimately did not suffer a loss of vision, and even if the fear of losing sight was not caused directly by a bodily injury.


Under Etihad’s framework, a plaintiff seeking to recover damages for mental anguish would instead have to prove that an accident caused bodily injury, which in turn caused the mental anguish. But that framework is neither found in the text of the Montreal Convention nor supported by the history and purpose of the Montreal Convention, nor do relevant decisions of the courts of the United States or sister signatories give us reason to adopt Etihad’s understanding.

Here, the accident was the needle pricking Doe’s finger. The accident happened on board Etihad’s aircraft. And the accident caused bodily injury, as Etihad has conceded. Etihad is therefore liable for Doe’s damage sustained, which includes both her physical injury and the mental anguish that she is able to prove that she sustained. Assuming that, on remand, Doe is able to prove fear of contagion or other mental anguish, Etihad is liable for damages arising from that anguish regardless of whether the anguish was directly caused by the physical hole in Doe’s finger or by the fact that Doe was pricked by a needle.

Useful for

Damages not available for purely mental injuries under Article 17

Mental injury damages available where coincident to special type of bodily injury

Treaty provisions considered

Article 17 MC99

Montreal Convention 1999

Legislation considered

None identified.

Key subjects or concepts

Accident/ Bodily Injury/ Mental Injury/