United Airlines is being sued by a passenger who claims she suffered permanent brain damage after heavy luggage fell from an overhead bin and hit her on the head during a a June, 2018 flight. Sure, airlines face plenty of lawsuits like this every year but what makes this case unusual is that the incident didn’t actually happen anywhere near a United Airlines plane but instead on an aircraft belonging to German flag carrier Lufthansa. So why is United potentially at fault?
The story begins when Gabeba Baderoon, a South African poet and academic who splits her time working and living between Cape Town and Pennslyvania, decided to travel back from South Africa to the United States on June 4, 2018. As there were no direct flights with United Airlines, Baderoon’s journey involved a flight from Cape Town to Frankfurt onboard a Lufthansa Airbus A340.
During that flight, Baderoon claims “a hard, heavy object from the baggage compartment above her unexpectedly fell and struck her.” The accident, which was caused by another passenger opening up the overhead bin, allegedly caused her a “severe and permanent brain injury.”
Baderoon accuses United of failing to ensure that luggage in the overhead bin was stowed properly and for failing to stop luggage from falling out of the locker. She also accuses United of failing to stop passengers opening the overhead bin mid-flight and claims United failed to provide appropriate medical care.
So, if this nasty sounding accident happened on a Lufthansa plane with no United flight attendants in sight and on a route that United doesn’t even fly itself, why could United be to blame?
The reason is that Baderoon had bought her ticket for the flight from United and was flying under what’s known as a codeshare flight. Although the flight was operated by a different airline, United had come to an agreement with Lufthansa to place its own two-letter code and flight number on the service.
So while United didn’t have any say over what happened on the plane, Baderoon’s attorneys argue that United is just as much to blame for the accident as Lufthansa. Baderoon is hoping to take both United and Lufthansa to court, requesting a trial by jury for unspecified damages under the Montreal Convention.
Under Article 17 of the Montreal Convention, it will be argued that both United and Lufthansa are liable for any injury that occurred onboard the aircraft. It will be up to the airlines to prove that the accident was not caused by negligence or “other wrongful act or omission”, or that the accident was entirely the fault of a third party – in this case, potentially the passenger who opened the overhead bin.
The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Northern Illinois on Monday. When contacted for comment on the case, United said it was unable to provide a statement because the litigation was pending. Lufthansa declined to comment on the matter.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.