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Selke v. Germanwings GMBH

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

July 20, 2017

RAYMOND C. SELKE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
GERMANWINGS GMBH, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Gerald Bruce Lee United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant United Airlines, Inc.'s ("Defendant" or "United") Motion to Dismiss and/or for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) and 56. (Dkt. No. 14.) This case concerns a suit for money damages brought by Plaintiffs Raymond C. Selke and Trevor J. Selke ("Plaintiffs") on two claims against Defendant for liability in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, which resulted in the death of Plaintiffs' family members, Yvonne C. Selke and Emily E. Selke. First, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant owes money damages under the liability parameters of the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air ("Montreal Convention" or "Convention"), [1] an international air carriage treaty ratified by the United States. Second, Plaintiffs in the alternative charge that Defendant is liable for the deaths of Yvonne C. Selke and Emily E. Selke ("Selke decedents") based on a claim of negligence under Virginia law.

         There are two issues before the Court. The first issue is whether, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), the Court should grant Defendant's Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, where specific personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant is permitted if the exercise of jurisdiction satisfies the constitutional requirements under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution. The Court DENIES United's Motion to Dismiss because Plaintiffs have made a prima facie showing that the Court has personal jurisdiction over United. Specifically, the Court has personal jurisdiction over United because in registering for business in Virginia, maintaining an agent for service of process in Virginia, and employing Virginia residents, United purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum. Additionally, because United itself acknowledged that it has previously brought no fewer than fourteen lawsuits in Virginia, the Court's exercise of personal jurisdiction does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice as required by the Due Process Clause.

         The second issue is whether, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the Court should grant Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, where Plaintiffs advance a theory of liability under the Montreal Convention and, in the alternative, negligence under Virginia law. The Court GRANTS United's Motion for Summary Judgment because even when viewing all alleged facts in a light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, United demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute of material fact for trial. Further, no theory of liability supports judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs under the Montreal Convention, which expressly preempts any similar claims under the common law.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This federal question action involves the surviving members of the Selke family alleging that United is liable for selling Yvonne C. Selke and Emily E. Selke airline tickets in Virginia that proximately resulted in their deaths. The Court has subject matter jurisdiction because the Plaintiffs submitted a claim for damages under the Montreal Convention, a treaty ratified by the United States Senate. (See Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 2.) In the alternative, the Court has authority to hear the case because the parties have diversity of citizenship, and the amount in question exceeds $75, 000. (See Id. ¶ 8.)

         Plaintiff Raymond C. Selke is the surviving husband of Yvonne C. Selke and father of decedent Emily E. Selke, as well as administrator of both decedents' estates. (Id. ¶ 13.) Trevor J. Selke is the surviving son of Yvonne C. Selke and brother of Emily E. Selke. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 14.) Plaintiffs filed a two-count Complaint alleging state law negligence (Count I) and Montreal Convention liability (Count II). (Id. ¶¶ 70, 83.) Plaintiffs charge both Counts against Defendant United Airlines and three other defendants: Germanwings GmbH ("Germanwings"); Deutsche Lufthansa AG ("Lufthansa"); and Eurowings GmbH ("Eurowings"). (Id. ¶ 3.)

         Plaintiffs allege that United is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois, and that United purposefully availed itself of the jurisdiction of the Eastern District of Virginia. (Id. ¶ 15.) Plaintiffs contend that in or around February 2015, United sold airline tickets to the decedents through United's online booking system. (Id. ¶ 40.) Plaintiffs charge that through United's contractual agreements and Star Alliance membership, United provided decedents with round-trip air transportation from Washington Dulles airport in Virginia to Manchester, England. (Id. ¶¶ 35, 41.) Plaintiffs argue that the incentives associated with United's loyalty membership program, United Mileage Plus, induced decedent Yvonne C. Selke to book through United additional flights operated by defendants Germanwings and Lufthansa to maximize membership rewards points. (Id. ¶ 42.)

         The Selke decedents were scheduled to travel March 20, 2015 from Washington Dulles Airport in Virginia to Munich, Germany on United, and then from Munich to Barcelona, Spain on Lufthansa. (Id. ¶ 41.) On March 24, 2015, the Selke decedents were scheduled to travel from Barcelona to Diisseldorf, Germany on Germanwings, and then from Diisseldorf to Manchester, England on Germanwings. Id. Finally, on March 29, 2015, the Selke decedents were set to return home from Manchester to Washington Dulles via carriage provided by United. Id.

         Tragically, on the leg between Barcelona and Dusseldorf on Germanwings Flight No. 9525 ("Flight 9525"), co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked himself in the cockpit and caused the plane to crash into the French Alps. (Id. ¶ 1.) All 6 crew members and 144 passengers, including the Selkes, were killed. Id.

         Plaintiffs allege that by not maintaining adequate safety measures requiring two crew members present in the cockpit at all times, Germanwings, Eurowings, Lufthansa, and United negligently controlled Flight 9525. (Id. ¶ 46.) Plaintiffs allege that as a result of this negligence, Defendants proximately caused Flight 9525 to crash, resulting in the death of the Selkes. Id.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standards of Review

         I. Rule 12(b)(2)

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), the Court may dismiss a case for lack of personal jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2). Plaintiffs bear the burden of proving that personal jurisdiction exists by a preponderance of the evidence. Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989). When a court rules on personal jurisdiction without an evidentiary hearing, the plaintiff must make a prima facie showing of a sufficient jurisdictional basis to survive the challenge. Id. In such circumstances, a court must view all relevant allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and draw all reasonable inferences for the existence of jurisdiction. Combs, 886 F.2d at 676; see also Mylan Labs v. Akzo, N.V., 2 F.3d 56, 59-60 (4th Cir. 1993).

         Determining whether a defendant is subject to specific personal jurisdiction requires a two-step analysis. First, a court must conclude that jurisdiction is authorized by the state's long- arm statute. Mitrano v. Howes, 377 F.3d 402, 406 (4th Cir. 2004). Second, the court must find that the exercise of personal jurisdiction is consistent with the constitutional requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. Virginia's long-arm statute extends personal jurisdiction to the constitutionally permissible limits. ePlus Tech., Inc. v. Aboud, 313 F.3d 166, 176 (4th Cir. 2002). Accordingly, "[b]ecause Virginia's long-arm statute is intended to extend personal jurisdiction to the extent permissible under the due process clause, the statutory inquiry merges with the constitutional inquiry." Consulting Eng'rs Corp. v. Geometric Ltd., 561 F.3d 273, 277 (4th Cir. 2009).

         2. Rule 56

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the Court must grant summary judgment if the moving party establishes that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court views the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). If a motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 is properly made and sufficiently supported, an opposing party has the burden of showing that a genuine dispute exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). Furthermore, "the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48.

         A "material fact, " for the purposes of the summary judgment inquiry, is a fact that might affect the outcome of a party's case. Id. at 248; JKC Holding Co. v. Wash. Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). Similarly, whether a fact is considered "material" is determined by the substantive law governing the claims alleged in the complaint. Accordingly, "only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001). Likewise, a "genuine" issue concerning a "material" fact exists when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. Additionally, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e) requires that the nonmoving party go beyond the pleadings and by its own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986).

         B. Analysis

         The Court DENIES Defendant's Rule 12(b)(2) Motion to Dismiss because Defendant purposefully availed itself of the jurisdiction of Virginia, and in exercising personal jurisdiction the Court does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice under the Due Process Clause. The Court GRANTS Defendant's Rule 56 Motion for Summary Judgment because the Montreal Convention expressly preempts any claim for state law negligence, and no set of facts exist that result in liability for Defendant under the controlling articles of the treaty. Accordingly, the Court DISMISSES all claims against United because there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to United's role in the crash, and United is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

         I. Personal Jurisdiction Under Rule 12(b)(2)

         The Court has personal jurisdiction over United because in registering for business in Virginia, maintaining an agent for service of process in Virginia, and employing Virginia residents, United purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum. Additionally, because United itself acknowledged that it has previously brought no fewer than fourteen lawsuits in Virginia, the Court's exercise of personal ...


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