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Selke v. 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 Defendants Germanwings GmbH ("Germanwings"), Deutsche Lufthansa AG ("Lufthansa"), and Eurowings GmbH's ("Eurowings") (collectively "Defendants") Motion to Dismiss and/or for Summary Judgment[1]Pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) and 56. (Dkt. No. 42.) This case concerns a suit for money damages brought by Plaintiffs Raymond C. Selke and Trevor J. Selke ("Plaintiffs") on two claims against Defendants 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 ("Selke decedents"). First, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants owe money damages under the liability parameters of the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air ("Montreal Convention"), [2] an international air carriage treaty ratified by the United States. Second, Plaintiffs in the alternative charge that Defendants are liable for the deaths of the Selke decedents based on a claim of negligence under Virginia state law.

         There are five issues before the Court. The first issue is whether, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2), the Court should grant Defendant Gennanwings' Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, where Germanwings maintained no physical presence in Virginia but sold tickets to Virginia residents through an agent located in the Commonwealth. The Court denies Germanwings' Motion to Dismiss because Germanwings expressly authorized another airline to sell its tickets in Virginia, thus availing itself of the privilege of conducting business in the forum.

         The second issue is whether the Court should grant Defendant Lufthansa's Rule 12(b)(2) Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, where Lufthansa authorized another airline to sell tickets in Virginia on its behalf and maintained steady operations from a Virginia airport. The Court denies Lufthansa's Motion to Dismiss because in addition to selling its tickets to Virginia residents through an agent based in the forum, Lufthansa also employs Virginia citizens and operates daily flights from Dulles International Airport.

         The third issue is whether the Court should grant Lufthansa's Rule 56 Motion for Summary Judgment, where Lufthansa did not provide the actual carriage that resulted in the deaths of Plaintiffs' decedents. The Court grants Lufthansa's Motion for Summary Judgment because the Montreal Convention exclusively governs Plaintiffs' claims and Lufthansa's status as a "successive carrier" under the Convention does not confer liability for the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525.

         The fourth issue is whether the Court should grant Defendant Eurowings' Motion to Dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, where the airline has no physical presence in Virginia, was not party to the transaction that provided the Selke decedents with carriage to Europe, and did not sell tickets via its contractual relationship with an agent in Virginia. The Court grants Eurowings' Motion to Dismiss because Eurowings does not have minimum contacts in Virginia sufficient for the Court to assert jurisdiction under the requirements of the Due Process Clause.

         The fifth issue is whether the Court should grant Eurowings' Rule 56 Motion for Summary Judgment where the airline did not participate in nor contribute to any of the carriage that resulted in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. Because the Court may not exercise jurisdiction over Eurowings, the Court does not address the issues raised by Eurowings' Rule 56 motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Parties

         Plaintiffs Raymond C. Selke and Trevor J. Selke ("Plaintiffs") are the surviving members of the Selke family. Plaintiff Raymond C. Selke is the surviving husband of Yvonne C. Selke and father of decedent Emily E. Selke. (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 2.) Plaintiff Raymond C. Selke is also administrator of the decedents' estates. Id. Plaintiff Trevor J. Selke is the surviving son of Yvonne C. Selke and brother of Emily E. Selke. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 14.)

         Defendant Germanwings GmbH is a commercial airline organized and existing under the laws of Germany. (Dkt. No. 42 ¶ 2.) Germanwings also maintains its headquarters and its principal place of business in Cologne, Germany. (Id. ¶ 3.) Germanwings is an international air carrier that operates flights to 103 destinations worldwide, none of which have ever operated to or from Virginia, or any other state in the United States. (Dkt. No. 45.) Germanwings does not have an office in Virginia, or in any other state of the United States, and does not employ any citizens of either Virginia or the United States as a whole. (Id. at 10.) Germanwings is a wholly owned subsidiary of Defendant Lufthansa. (Dkt. No. 43-1 at 2.)

         Defendant Deutsche Lufthansa AG is a commercial airline organized and existing under the laws of Germany, with a headquarters and principal place of business in Cologne, Germany. (Dkt. No. 43-1 at 11.) Lufthansa operates flights to 205 international destinations, 19 of which are located in the United States, including one in Virginia. (Id. at 10.) Lufthansa also employs 430 citizens of the United States, 17 of whom are residents of Virginia. Id. Lufthansa is the parent corporation of both Germanwings and Eurowings. (Dkt. No. 43-1 at 2.)

         Defendant Eurowings GmbH is a commercial airline organized and existing under the laws of Germany. (Dkt. No. 42 at 6.) Eurowings' headquarters and principal place of business are located in Diisseldorf, Germany. Id. Eurowings offers flights to 124 international destinations, operating approximately 2, 767 flights per week. (Id. at 11.) Eurowings provides carriage to several destinations in the United States, including Seattle, Washington; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Miami, Florida. Id. Eurowings has never operated any flights from or to Virginia, does not maintain an office in Virginia, and has never employed any Virginia residents. Id. Eurowings is a wholly owned subsidiary of Defendant Lufthansa. (Dkt. No. 43-1 at 2.)

         Defendant United Airlines, Inc. ("United") is a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Illinois. (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 15.) United is a domestic and international air carrier that operates flights to and from five destinations within the Commonwealth of Virginia and employs 5, 700 Virginia citizens. (Dkt. No. 15-1 ¶ 34.)

         B. Defendants' Business Relationships with United Airlines, Inc.

         Defendants maintain business agreements with United that permit United to sell tickets for flights performed by Germanwings, Eurowings, and Lufthansa. (Dkt. 43-1 at 4-6.) Defendants' ticketing agreements with United fall into two categories: "interline" agreements and "codeshare" agreements. Id. Germanwings, Eurowings, and Lufthansa maintain interline agreements with United, which involve business relationships where the carriers engage in mutual acceptance of tickets and baggage, but operate independently from one another. Id. Germanwings, Eurowings, and Lufthansa each also have separate codeshare agreements with United wherein United may sell under its own authority passage on one of the other carriers. (Dkt. No. 43-1 at 6.) Under these codeshare sales, United assumes responsibility for any flights booked despite the performance of actual carriage by another airline. Id.

         Lufthansa and United, along with 27 other airlines, are members of the "Star Alliance, " an international group of air carriers sharing mutual connection locations, reciprocal frequent flier membership benefits, and flight check-in recognition. (Dkt. 43-1 at 7.) Neither Germanwings nor Eurowings is a member of the Star Alliance. Id.

         C. Crash of Germanwings Flight No. 9525

         Plaintiffs allege that in or around February 2015, the Selke decedents booked air carriage on five flights through United's website for a European vacation scheduled from March 20, 2015 to March 29, 2015. (Dkt. 45 at 8.) Decedents were scheduled to travel from Washington Dulles Airport in Virginia to Munich, Germany on United, and then from Munich to Barcelona, Spain on March 20, 2015 via Lufthansa. Id. On March 24, 2015, the Selke decedents were scheduled to travel from Barcelona to Dtisseldorf, Germany on Germanwings, and then from Dtisseldorf to Manchester, England on Germanwings. Id. Finally, on March 29, 2015, decedents were scheduled to return home from Manchester to Washington Dulles via carriage provided by United. Id.

         On the flight 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 rapidly descend and crash into the French Alps. (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 1.) Tragically, all 6 crew members and 144 passengers, including the Selke decedents, were killed. Id.

         Plaintiffs allege that by not maintaining safety measures requiring two crew members to remain present in the cockpit at all times, Germanwings and, by association, Eurowings, Lufthansa and United negligently operated Flight 9525, proximately causing the crash that killed the Selke decedents. Id.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standards of Review

         1. 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 & 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 person is subject to 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, 317 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 of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. 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. Anderson, 477 U.S.at 248. 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." Id.; see also Hooven-Lewis v. Caldera, 249 F.3d 259, 265 (4th Cir. 2001). Likewise, a "genuine" dispute concerning a "material" fact exists when the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in the non-moving party's favor. Anderson, 477 U.S.at 248. Additionally, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e) requires that the non-moving 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 Germanwings' Rule 12(b)(2) Motion to Dismiss because Germanwings expressly authorized United to sell its tickets in the forum of Virginia, thus reaching into the state to conduct business using an agent as a sales proxy.

         The Court likewise denies Lufthansa's Rule 12(b)(2) Motion to Dismiss because Lufthansa employs Virginia citizens, enjoys the protection of Virginia laws while conducting business in the forum, and operates daily flights from Dulles International Airport in Virginia. However, the Court grants Lufthansa's Rule 56 Motion for Summary Judgment because Lufthansa's role as an interline carrier in the travel of the Selke decedents does not confer liability under the governing articles of the Montreal Convention, which expressly preempts Plaintiffs' state law claims.

         Lastly, the Court grants Eurowings' Rule 12(b)(2) Motion to Dismiss because Eurowings does not have sufficient contacts in Virginia to satisfy the constitutional requirements for the Court to assert specific personal jurisdiction. Specifically, because Eurowings was not in any way a party to United's sale of tickets to the Selke decedents, the transaction does not implicate Eurowings, which otherwise has no contacts with Virginia whatsoever.

         Because the Court cannot assert personal jurisdiction, the Court need not address Eurowings' Rule 56 Motion for Summary Judgment.

         1. Personal Jurisdiction Over Germanwings

         The Court has personal jurisdiction over Germanwings because the airline purposely availed itself of Virginia by transacting business in the Commonwealth through its agent, United. This business activity resulted in the sale of tickets that gave rise to Plaintiffs' cause of action. Furthermore, because Plaintiffs are citizens of Virginia and adjudicating the matter in this forum would not unduly inconvenience Germanwings, the Court's assertion of personal jurisdiction comports with the reasonableness requirements of the Due Process Clause.

         When considering a challenge to personal jurisdiction, the Court first asks whether Virginia's long-arm statute authorizes personal jurisdiction over the defendant, and, second, whether the assertion of jurisdiction runs afoul of the requirements of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because Virginia's long-arm statute sweeps as broadly as permitted by due process, the two inquiries collapse into the same analysis of whether the assertion of personal jurisdiction can withstand due process scrutiny. See Peanut Corp. of Am. v. Hollywood Brands, Inc., 696 F.2d 311, 313 (4th Cir. 1982).

         For a court's assertion of personal jurisdiction to withstand this review, a defendant must have "certain minimum contacts . . . such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'" Int'l Shoe Co. v. Washington,326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milliken v. Meyer,311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940)). Such "minimum contacts" exist if a defendant has "purposely avail[ed] itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its law." Hanson v. Denclda,357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958); see also Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz,471 U.S. 462, 475 (1985) ("This 'purposeful availment' requirement ensures that a defendant will not be haled into a jurisdiction solely as a result of 'random, ' 'fortuitous, ' or 'attenuated' contacts."). In the Fourth Circuit, courts consider three factors when analyzing personal jurisdiction over a nonresident defendant: "[1] the extent to which the defendant purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum state; [2] whether the plaintiffs' claims arise out of those activities; and [3] whether the assertion of personal jurisdiction is constitutionally reasonable." Tir ...


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