My co-worker and good friend Sarah has recently completed a trip to the United States. Unfortunately, thanks to the sterling work of Spirit Airlines, she returned with only the clothes she was wearing and without her weightlifting gear. She is, not unreasonably, just a little miffed.
Long time readers may recall that I posted a note on Nicol v Air Maroc, a decision from the High Court of Sierra Leone in which an airline’s liability for the costs of lost luggage was explored. No doubt, if all else fails, suitable litigation under the Warsaw Convention will set things to rights. But this got me thinking: “I’m an old-fashioned sort of solicitor. Is there an old-school way of dealing with this?”
There is, and it comes to us out of a foggy night on 5 April 1900, just off of Table Bay in South Africa. The SS Winkfield, a troopship, collided with SS Mexican, a ship carrying passengers, freight and mail. No lives were lost, but a quantity of mail went down with the Mexican.
Inevitably, litigation began for the value of the lost mail, lead by the Postmaster-General as bailee of the items. Damages were agreed at £32,514, 17s 10d (current value £3,925,832.83 / AU$7,439,488.97 / US$5,052,959.06). At first instance the claim was rejected on the grounds that, as bailee, the Postmaster had no liability for loss of the mail and therefore no standing to sue. The Postmaster appealed.
The English Court of Appeal (Collins MR, Stirling and Mathew LJJ) stated decisively that the Postmaster, being possessor of the mails, had a perfect right to sue for their loss.
[T]he root principle of the whole discussion is that, as against a wrongdoer, possession is title. The chattel that has been converted or damaged is deemed to be the chattel of the possessor and of no other, and therefore its loss or deterioration is his loss, and to him, if he demands it, it must be recouped.
The Court also made an observation which would be on point for my friend Sarah if Spirit Airlines find they cannot come up with her belongings in a timely way.
[T]he obligation of the bailee to the bailor to account for what he has received in respect of the destruction or conversion of the thing bailed has been admitted so often in decided cases that it cannot now be questioned.
Loss of baggage by an airline being determined by case law from before the age of flight? Sounds like fun to me!