Case C-394/14 Sandy Siewert v Condor Flugdienst: compensation for flight delays, super fast preliminary reference

Here’s a rather amusing case. Well, the way the Court of Justice dealt with the case will make folks who have been left stuck in airports smile. What actually happened to the plaintiffs in the main proceedings was not so funny.

In Case C-394/14 Sandy Siewert and others v Condor Flugdienst, EU:C:2014:2377, the Court of Justice handed down swift and decisive justice. In just under three months, the Court handed down an order responding to a reference from a national court to the effect that the plaintiffs in the national proceedings were indeed entitled to compensation under Regulation 261/2004 because their had been delayed for more than six hours. That’s right: question received by the Court of Justice on 18 August 2014, answer given on 14 November 2014. Bang !

Here’s what happened.

The Siewert family booked a flight from Antalya (Turkey) to Frankfurt (Germany) with the airline, Condor. The arrival of that flight was delayed by more than six hours. Condor claimed some mobile boarding stairs had collided with the aircraft the night before at Stuttgart airport, causing structural damage to a wing and, as a consequence, the aircraft had to be replaced. According to Condor, those were ‘extraordinary circumstances’, relieving it of its obligation to pay compensation. The Siewerts claimed compensation which the airline denied and they had to start litigation in the German courts.

The German court seised asked the Court of Justice whether a situation where a set of mobile boarding stairs collides with an aircraft can be categorised as ‘extraordinary circumstances’ of such a kind as to relieve the air carrier of its liability to pay compensation.

The Court’s answer in its order of 14 November 2014 is sort of like “don’t be daft, of course mobile stairs crashing into a plane cannot be ‘extraordinary circumstances’ and does not exonerate the airline from its liability to pay compensation.”

The Court recalled its settled case law according to which technical problems may be regarded as ‘extraordinary circumstances’, only if they stem from an event which, owing to its nature or origin, is not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier and is beyond its actual control (Judgment in Wallentin-Hermann, C-549/07, EU:C:2008:771, paragraphs 20 and 23). A collision between mobile stairs and an aircraft is the sort of thing that may happen and airlines just have to deal with it.

Note that the Court’s order was handed down pursuant to Article 99 of the Rules of Procedure.  The Court did not even serve the order for reference on anyone to get any written  or oral submissions from the parties or from the Commission and just went ahead and gave its response.

One can sense the irritation of the Court faced with what looks like obstreperous attitudes of the airline industry in denying or delaying the payment of compensation under Regulation 261/2004. Court watchers will be aware that airlines sometimes deny compensation and then settle at the very last moment, when the Court of Justice is just about to hand down a judgment in the case, in order to avoid an embarrassing and public result. To some extent, the Court can deal with such tactics by invoking Article 100 (1) last sentence of its Rules of Procedure which provides :

“The withdrawal of a request [for a preliminary ruling] may be taken into account until notice of the date of delivery of the judgment has been served on the interested persons referred to in Article 23 of the Statute.”

If the parties settle and the case is withdrawn after that date, the Court can go ahead and hand down its judgment anyway.

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