Delays at the airport made us miss our flight. Can we sue?

Lawyers call a direct relationship between two parties “privacy”. Examples are landlord and tenant or shopkeeper and customer. You have no privacy with the airport – you are there not because you directly contract with the airport to use their services, but because you have bought an airline ticket or package tour.

It is the airline or tour operator that offers services to their customers. This means that you cannot bring any claims against the airport for breach of contract or for a lack of “reasonable care and skill” within the meaning of the Consumer Protection Act.

The legal question is whether we can somehow argue that the airport still owed you a duty of care to provide its services on time and not cause you financial harm. Because if you were injured because part of the airport building fell down on you due to lack of maintenance, you would expect to be able to sue. And we can draw a parallel to that.

You can sue an airport for negligent bodily harm because the airport has a tort obligation to you. Tort is the legal principle that we are all obliged to one another and that remedy should be sought when an unlawful act by one party causes injury or loss to another party.

Here in the UK, tort is subtle and the duty of care it imposes is far-reaching. As far as I’m aware, damage caused by missing a flight by an airport’s acts or omissions hasn’t been found by a court to be a breach of the duty of care, but that doesn’t mean your case can’t be the first test case.

Courts determine that beyond a close contractual relationship, there is a statutory duty of care if three criteria are met:

  • The harm must be a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the conduct. Here I would say that delays at check-in or at security that result in missed flights are a reasonably foreseeable consequence of staff shortages.
  • There must be a “close relationship” between the parties. Here you had no choice but to go through standard airport protocol, so I can’t see what could be closer.
  • A liability must be “fair and reasonable”, meaning that the conduct of the parties is relevant. For example, they arrived on time and there are reports that airports do not have enough staff.

Determining a duty of care and a breach of it are the first steps in determining negligence. The next step is to show the actual damage, which for you was buying replacement flights and staying at the airport hotel, and showing the “causation” – that the airport delays caused the damage or loss.

First send a damage report to the airport. Thereafter, the place to bring a claim is the County Court’s Small Claims Track, which applies in England and Wales to claims of less than £10,000. It is referred to as a simple procedure in Scotland for claims of less than £5,000. The limit in Northern Ireland is £3,000.

Ask a lawyer is written by Gary Rycroft, attorney at Joseph A. Jones & Co, and is published twice a month on Mondays. Email your questions to Delays at the airport made us miss our flight. Can we sue?

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