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Van der Lans - The Death Knell of Technical Defect Defences Under Regulation (EC) 261/2004

08-October-2015
08-October-2015 17:23
in Aviation and Travel
by Christopher Loxton

On  17  September  2015,  judgment  was  handed  down  by  the  Court  of  Justice  for  the   European  Union  (‘CJEU’)  in the much-­-awaited  case  of   Corina  van   der  Lans  v   Koninklijke  Luchtvaart  Maatschappij  NV  (C-­-257/14)  (‘van  der  Lans’). For  those  hoping   it  would  provide a glimmer  of  hope  to  air  carriers  in  circumstances  where  technical  or   mechanical defects  lead  to  delays  and  cancellations  of  flights,  the  decision  will  come   as  a  bitter  disappointment.

Under  Article  5(3)  of  Regulation  (EC)  261/2004,  an  air  carrier  is  not  obliged  to  pay   fixed  compensation  for  delays or  flight  cancellations  if  it  can  prove  that  they  were   caused  by  ‘extraordinary  circumstances  which  could  not  have been  avoided  even  if  all   reasonable  measures  had  been  taken’.    

The  case  arose  when  Ms  van  der  Lans’s  flight  from  Ecuador  to  the  Netherlands  was   delayed  by  29  hours.  The delay  was  caused  by  defects  in  two  engine  components. The  air  carrier  claimed  that  this  constituted  an extraordinary  circumstance  (‘EC’),   thereby  removing  their  obligation  to  pay  compensation  for  the  delay.  

The  Judgment    

In  finding  against  the  airline,  the  CJEU  arguably  narrowed  what  might  constitute   ‘technical  defect  ECs’  from  the previous  guidance  found  in  Friederike  Wallentin-­- Hermann  v  Alitalia-­-Linee  Aeree  Italiane  SpA   (C-­-549/07,  22 December  2008)   (‘Wallentin’).    

In  Wallentin,  the  CJEU  confirmed  what  would  not  amount  to  ECs:  technical  defects   that  come  to  light  during maintenance  of  aircraft  or  on  account  of  failure  to  carry  out   such  maintenance  [para.  25].    The  Court  then postulated  examples  capable  of   amounting  to  ECs:  hidden  manufacturing  defects  which  impinge  on  flight  safety   revealed  by  the  manufacturer  of  the  aircraft  comprising  the  fleet  of  the  air  carrier   concerned,  or  by  a  competent authority,  or  damage  to  aircraft  caused  by  acts  of   sabotage  or  terrorism  [para.  26].    

In  van  der  Lans,  the  CJEU  stated  that  aircrafts  are  operated  in  “often  difficult  or  even   extreme”  meteorological conditions,  and  it  is  “understood  moreover  that  no   component  of  an  aircraft  lasts  forever”  [para.41].  

The  Court  went  on  to  find  that  the  prevention  of  a  breakdown,  or  the  repairs   occasioned  by  it,  including  the replacement  of  a  prematurely  defective  component,  is   not  beyond  the  actual  control  of  that  carrier,  since  a  carrier is  required  to  ensure  the   maintenance  and  proper  functioning  of  the  aircraft  it  operates  for  the  purposes  of  its   business  [para.43]. This  seems  a  somewhat  unfair  conclusion  to  draw  given  that  in   Wallentin  the  Court acknowledged  by  implication  that  technical  defects  can  occur   which  do  not  come  to  light  during  maintenance  of aircraft  or  on  account  of  failure  to   carry  out  such  maintenance.    However,  in  the  following  passage  of  van  der Lans  the   Court  clarified  that  even  these  defects  could  not  constitute  ECs  [at  para.  49]:  

         "…a technical  problem, such as that at issue in the main  proceedings, which occurred unexpectedly, which is not attributable to poor maintenance and which was also not detected during routine maintenance checks, does not fall within  the definition of ‘extraordinary circumstances’ within the meaning of that provision.”  

The  central  points  of  the  judgment  can  be  summarised  as  follows:  

  1. The functioning of aircraft ‘inevitably’ gives rise to technical defects / faults such as the premature malfunction of a certain component [para.37].    
  2. Although the premature malfunction of certain components of an aircraft constitutes unexpected events [para.41], in the course of the activities of an air carrier, such unexpected events are inherent in the normal exercise of an air carrier’s activity, as an air carrier is confronted as a matter of course with unexpected technical faults [para.42].

Going  forward

Air  carriers  should  therefore  be  alive  to  the  Court’s  very  narrow  interpretation  of   what  can  constitute  an  EC  when aircraft  components  fail.        

In  order  to  escape  the  confines  of  van  der  Lans  then,  an  air  carrier  would  have  to   prove  that  the  cause  of  a component  failing,  whilst  under  warranty  say,  and/or  at  an   earlier  stage  in  its  life  than  anticipated  by  a programmed  maintenance  schedule,  was   not  inherent  in  the  normal  exercise  of  the  activity  of  that  air  carrier  and was  beyond   its  actual  control.    In  other  words,  the  cause  of  the  failure  of  a  component  cannot  not be  due  to  the activity  of  the  air  carrier,  or  the  aircraft  in  question,  for  example  due  to   wear  and  tear,  even  if  that  cause  is unexpected  or  unforeseen.      

In  reality  such  a  scenario  is  going  to  be  rare.    Short  of  a  manufacturer  or  component   authority  (e.g.  the  CAA) issuing  an  airworthiness  directive  grounding  aircrafts  on  the   basis  of  a  hidden  manufacturing  defect,  it  is  unlikely  a technical  fault  causing  a  delay   or  cancellation  will  amount  to  an  EC.    Furthermore,  the  Court  in  van  der  Lans implied   that  in  order  to  rely  on  article  5(3)  in  these  circumstances,  it  will  not  be  enough  for   the  air  carrier  to assert  the  event  was  a  hidden  manufacturing  defect,  evidence  will   also  have  to  be  provided  by  the  manufacturer or  component  authority  [see  para.  45]. Such  evidence  can  of  course  be  provided  after  an  air  carrier  itself  has revealed  a   hidden  defect,  as  the  EC  need  not  be  predicated  on  the  defect  coming  to  the   attention  of  a manufacturer  or  authority  first.  

As  the  Court  declined  to  provide  further  guidance  on  the  reasonable  measures  air   carriers  should  take  to  deal with ECs,  the  ‘intolerable  sacrifices’  test  laid  out  in  Eglitis   v  Air  Baltic  Corporation  AS  (C-­-294/10,  12  May  2011) remains good  law.    

As  well  as  emphasising  the  high  degree  of  protection  that  Regulation  (EC)  261/2004   affords  to  passengers,  the   CJEU’s   continued   narrow  interpretation  of  what   constitutes  ECs  in  the  context  of  technical  defects  likely  marks  the end  of  such  cases   being  taken  to  Luxembourg.      

© 2015 Chambers of Lawrence Power, 4 King’s Bench Walk, Temple, London, EC4Y 7DL. Tel: 020 7822 8822. www.4kbw.net  email jr@4kbw.net