It might be harder to get hot coffee at 30,000 feet after the European Union’s top court said that airlines can be held responsible for injuries caused by spilled drinks, even if it isn’t clear how the cup got knocked over.
“An airline is liable for the harm caused by a spilled cup of hot coffee,” the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled Thursday. “It is not necessary for that accident to relate to a hazard typically associated with flight.”
Hot drinks have been getting fast-food firms into hot water ever since an 81-year-old customer of a McDonald’s Corp. drive-through was awarded $2.9 million by a New Mexico jury in 1994. The award was later reduced by roughly three-quarters by a judge. Starbucks Corp. has beat several U.S. lawsuits on burns from hot drinks.
“Consumers do not expect to be hurt when drinking a warm drink on a plane,” said Agustin Reyna, head of legal affairs for the European consumer organization BEUC. “It is the responsibility of the air carrier to ensure they provide passengers with food and drinks in safe conditions.”
Thursday’s case relates to a six-year-old girl who was on a flight with her dad from Mallorca, Spain to Vienna, Austria. She was burned when his coffee cup accidentally tumbled onto her. The airline, Niki Luftfahrt GmbH, rejected their claim for compensation, saying no particular event had caused the cup to fall over.
The court, however, said the EU’s legal definition of accident “covers all situations occurring on board an aircraft in which an object used when serving passengers has caused bodily injury to a passenger, without it being necessary to examine whether those situations stem from a hazard typically associated with aviation.”
An airline can limit liability to 124,000 euros ($138,000) if it proves the accident wasn’t caused by its negligence or was caused by someone else, the court said. The decision adds to earlier rules that have allowed European passengers to seek compensation for flight delays, cancellations or boarding issues.
An Austrian court handling the dispute between the family and the administrators for the airline referred the case to the bloc’s top court for guidance on EU law.
The case is: C‑532/18, Niki Luftfahrt.
(Updates with comment in fourth paragraph)