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19 August 2020
With Decision 11588/2020 the Supreme Court issued an important ruling on the liability and indemnity for damages caused during the supply of airport ground-handling services to airlines.
The case originated from an accident suffered by a Boeing 767 aircraft operated by an Italian carrier at Verona Airport in northern Italy whose right wing hit the sliding gate of the hangar – where the aircraft was being recovered – during the towing phase conducted by one of the handling provider's trucks.
The carrier brought a legal action for direct and indirect damages against the handler for several million euro. In parallel, the carrier's insurers joined the proceeding to recover from the handler the indemnities liquidated to the carrier under the relevant hull risk coverages. The handler denied the charges arguing that there was an International Air Transportation Association standard ground-handling agreement (SGHA) in place with the carrier, pursuant to which a waiver of liability would apply in favour of the handler below a certain level of negligence and mainly due to the absence of reckless actions or wilful misconduct (ie, Article 8.1(d): "damage to or loss of property owned or operated by, or on behalf of, the carrier and any consequential loss or damage").
Conversely, the handler stressed that the accident had been caused by the slight negligence of the airport truck driver who was towing the aircraft into the hangar; therefore, at most the handler's liability and indemnity obligations should have been limited to direct damages suffered by the carrier, in line with Article 8.5 of the SGHA (providing for a capped liability in the event of "physical loss of or damage to the carrier's aircraft caused by the handling company's negligent act or omission").
The first-instance decision awarded significant compensation in favour of the carrier, including direct damages (ie, aircraft repair expenses, Civil Aviation Authority re-certification charges, costs for the export and shipping of equipment, parts and materials to the aircraft manufacturer in the United States and hangarage and parking costs at the airport) and consequential damages (ie, a loss of business opportunity for unavailability of the aircraft and reputational and image damages). The handler challenged the first-instance decision before the Court of Appeal; however, the court basically upheld the tribunal's ruling on the merits with a reduction of the overall compensation for a different calculation of damages, as the first judge had not considered the carrier's operational cost savings arising from the grounding of the aircraft.
At the outcome of the legal proceeding, the Supreme Court confirmed that the first-instance decision and the Court of Appeal in the second instance had properly applied the SGHA provisions in respect of the subject matter. This consideration was made in light of the factual circumstances ascertained through the evidentiary phase of the dispute, from which it resulted that:
The Supreme Court also recognised that the first two judges had correctly made a strict evaluation of the handler's negligence, considering that airport handlers are business entities subject to certification and licensing procedures with the Civil Aviation Authority, which makes them qualified operators subject to the highest degree of care in the supply of sector services.
For further information on this topic please contact Laura Pierallini at Studio Legale Pierallini e Associati by telephone (+39 06 88 41 713) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Studio Legale Pierallini e Associati website can be accessed at www.studiopierallini.it.
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