Airplanes / Aviation, Disasters / Emergencies, Litigators, Plaintiffs Firms, Tort Reform

Will the Great Blizzard of 2010 Lead to a Storm of Lawsuits?

Here in New York City, the headquarters of Above the Law, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the Great Blizzard of 2010. Check out our slideshow for some images (like the one at right).

Although the snowstorm ended on Monday, and it’s now Wednesday night, many streets remain unplowed and many sidewalks uncleared. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, generally praised for his tremendous competence, is taking a lot of flak for the city’s inadequate response.

And that’s just in terms of politics and public relations. Wait until the lawyers get involved!

What possible causes of action could arise out of the snowstorm? Let’s discuss….

There are so many potential lawsuits here just waiting to be filed. We’ll toss out a few ideas to start the discussion, but we invite you to share other theories of liability, in the comments.

1. Lawsuits against airlines by unhappy passengers.

JFK Airport (via Gothamist).

The snowstorm resulted in cancellation of some 4,000 flights (including mine, down to Florida). While most passengers will just suck it up and deal — I canceled my trip, and Continental Airlines tells me my refund is being processed — some might take to the courts.

But passengers seeking big damages from the airlines might encounter some rough sledding, as NY1 reports: “In the airline business, snowstorms are known as a force majeure, an Act of God, something out of their control, which limits their liability when it comes to compensating passengers.”

Yup, good old force majeure. See? The doctrines you learn in 1L contracts class do have application in real life!

Of course, you don’t need to break out the fancy French terms to understand what’s going on here. It’s simply a matter of what’s in the contract of carriage between you and your air carrier. These contracts generally provide for flight cancellation in the event of inclement weather — and limitation of airline liability in the event of such cancellation. See, e.g., Delta’s contract of carriage.

What about the poor passengers stuck on planes sitting on the JFK Airport tarmac, for as long as 11 hours? Will they get some kind of compensation?

It’s not clear. The new Airline Passengers Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to international flights. But some of the airlines involved, such as Cathay Pacific, might voluntarily compensate affected passengers. (It would certainly make sense for them as a PR move, even if it might not be legally mandated.)

Meanwhile, back in the city, other tort claims are brewing….

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