A Weitz & Luxenberg client, who was injured when a suitcase fell from an overhead bin on an airplane, recently obtained a settlement in the high six figures after the firm sued the airline on her behalf.

Attorney Lawrence Goldhirsch, who represents the client, a woman in her sixties, said she was a passenger on an international flight that was about to leave from John F. Kennedy International Airport when a flight attendant was rearranging some luggage in an overhead bin. A suitcase fell from the bin and struck the client in the head as she was sitting in the seat closest to the aisle.

The woman was taken to a hospital in a backboard and collar, where she complained of headache, nausea, neck pain, and pain in her left shoulder and arm.

The next day, she saw her own doctor. Although she didn’t outwardly appear to have serious injuries, the woman complained of weakness in her left arm and numbness in her left hand. She also experienced dizziness, anxiety, headaches, and stiffness in her neck. She was diagnosed with concussion, neck pain, and pain in the cervical spine.

Tests given because of ongoing issues determined she had suffered damage to the protective covering of part of her brain and irritation of her temporal lobe.  

The client continued to experience cognitive difficulties, including inability to focus or perform multiple tasks, poor short-term memory, daily headaches, neck pain, noise sensitivity, sleep problems, anxiety, fatigue, and constant high-pitched ringing in her head.

She was unable to continue her work in a medical laboratory, and ultimately was fired from her job, which paid $78,000 a year.

The settlement was paid by the airline’s insurer. Goldhirsch said airlines are responsible for accidental injuries to passengers if they occur in international transportation under an international treaty known as the Montreal Convention, which was created in 1999 and has been ratified by both the United States and China, which was the plaintiff’s destination.

Under the Convention, which does not cover domestic travel, the injured passenger does not have to prove the airline was negligent or at fault for the accident in order to be compensated.

Goldhirsch authored a book, “The Warsaw Convention Annotated: A Legal Handbook,” about the treaty that was the precursor to the Montreal Convention. An expert in aviation accidents, Goldhirsch has been involved in this area of the law since 1976.

According to Goldhirsch, the Montreal Convention governs the rights of parties involved in accidents in international transportation.

To bring a claim under the treaty, the plaintiff merely has to show that he or she was injured while engaged in international transportation on an airplane. The meaning of that last part is more expansive than it appears, Goldhirsch said.

The plaintiff doesn’t have to be physically on the airplane. He or she could be embarking or disembarking from the plane and can even be some distance from the plane and still be covered by the Montreal Convention and entitled to its benefits, according to Goldhirsch. “If you trip in the terminal on a piece of luggage, you might be covered depending on several factors,” he said. The same goes, in some circumstances, to being on a bus to or from the airplane.

The treaty “encompasses much more than just being on the airplane,” Goldhirsch said.  

There are two levels of recovery under the Montreal Convention, Goldhirsch said. To prevail on a claim for $150,000 or less, a plaintiff doesn’t have to prove negligence or that the airline was responsible for the accident in any way. For amounts greater than that, as in the case involving the woman hit by luggage, negligence on the part of the airline must be established.

Since the flight attendant was the one adjusting the suitcases at the time of this accident, it was clear that the airline was responsible for negligence, Goldhirsch said.

After Weitz & Luxenberg filed the lawsuit and proceeded with discovery and depositions, the airline conceded it was responsible in this case.

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