Airline passenger can seek emotional distress damages for needle prick

A passenger could try to hold an airline accountable for emotional distress she suffered after getting pricked by a hypodermic needle while reaching into a seatback pocket, a federal court of appeals recently decided.

The woman was traveling on Eftihad Airways from Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia to Chicago. She spent much of the 14-hour flight with the tray table in her lap because the knob holding it in place had fallen off. At some point, she reached into the seatback pocket to retrieve the knob, which she had placed in the pocket when she took it off the floor, and was unexpectedly jabbed by a hypodermic needle that someone left behind.

The prick drew blood, but the airline offered no medical attention beyond an antiseptic wipe, a Band-Aid and the advice to see a doctor when she got home. Her family physician later prescribed her medication for possible hepatitis, tetanus and HIV exposure.

Several rounds of tests came up negative, but the passenger said she had suffered severe mental anguish from the incident and sued Eftihad. A federal judge threw out her claim, ruling that under the Montreal Convention (an international treaty that governs injuries on international flights), she was only entitled to damages that stemmed directly from a bodily injury on the flight and that her emotional harm wasn’t caused by the actual physical wound.

But the 6th Circuit reversed the lower court on appeal, deciding that under the Montreal Convention emotional distress damages are available as long as they can be traced back to the accident. This is different than how other courts have ruled in the past, and courts in other parts of the country might rule differently. But if you’re suffering psychological trauma from an accident that happened on a flight, consult with a lawyer to discuss your options.