Language Translations, French-English Translation, and the Case of Airline Liability for Emotional Distress

There are often cases, which are decided on the meaning of a single foreign word.   It is then that the court would carefully look at all the available translations of that word, the context, and more.

Article 17 of the Warsaw Convention sets out specific conditions under which an international air carrier can be held liable for injuries to passengers. It reads:

The carrier is liable for damage sustained in the event of the death or wounding of a passenger or any other bodily injury suffered by a passenger, if the accident which caused the damage so sustained took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking. 

In other words, it allows the passengers to recover for “lesion corporelle“- a French term, which literally translates as “bodily injury”, and is found in the authentic French text of Article 17.

However, in a leading court decision the Supreme Court found that when conducting a foreign language interpretation of a treaty, the treaty’s text and context should be used as the basis for the foreign language translation. Thus, a court should look to the treaty’s history, negotiations and practical construction adopted by the parties.

Using such a broad approach to foreign language translation, the Supreme Court found that the Warsaw Convention did mean for the term “lesion corporelle” to be construed narrowly, and thus not allow for liability when injuries are purely emotional.

However, the issue of whether or not liability for emotional injuries combined with physical injuries would be allowed under the treaty was not addressed.

Eastern Airlines, Inc. v. Floyd, 499 U.S. 530 (1991)

To read our legal translation company’s blog entry “Technical Translation Services, and Registering an Imported Aircraft”, click here.

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