The Montreal Convention employs a fairly straightforward two-year period of limitations for lawsuits arising out of international air transportation, and this law trumps any state law statutes of limitations. Under the Convention, the clock begins ticking on the date the aircraft arrived at its destination or the date it should have arrived at its destination. However, in Narayanan v. British Airways, the Ninth Circuit faced a “factual wrinkle” that complicated this analysis.
There, the airline allegedly denied a terminally ill passenger his necessary supplemental oxygen during an international flight. The passenger died six months later. The airline argued that the wrongful death suit, filed two years and three months after the flight’s arrival, was untimely. The plaintiff, however, argued that the wrongful death claim did not accrue under California law until the passenger’s death, so the period of limitations could not have begun running earlier. The Court recognized that it was somewhat incongruous for a period of limitations to start before a plaintiff’s cause of action has accrued, but ultimately found the Convention’s language to be unequivocal. Since the suit was filed more than two years after the subject flight arrived at its destination, it was properly dismissed as untimely. Judge Pregerson dissented, but did not suggest that the law called for a different result. Instead, he argued that the period of limitations is outdated because, unlike when the limitations period was first adopted in the Warsaw Convention of 1929, the commercial aviation industry is no longer fledgling and in need of protection.
State law often provides many ways around seemingly straightforward statutes of limitations, e.g., the discovery rule, the relation-back doctrine, and tolling provisions for service members and minors. Given the Narayanan decision, though, it should be very difficult for plaintiffs in Montreal Convention cases to avoid the effect of the Convention’s hard and fast two-year limitations period.