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Legal fees and no-reply email addresses

Many questions of our airline clients concern legal fees demanded by passengers and under what circumstances these fees must be paid. Especially when letters of notice are sent to no-reply email addresses and subsequently lawsuits are filed, there are often uncertainties. The aim of today´s article is to briefly illustrate the Austrian system concerning the reimbursement of legal fees and to answer the question if legal fees must be paid when a letter of notice has merely been sent to a no-reply email address.

Airlines are often confronted by letters of notice sent by a lawyer with which not only a ticket reimbursement or compensation payment is demanded, but also legal fees for the lawyer´s work. Such legal fees must only be paid if the involvement of a lawyer was necessary for the passenger. This is the case if, e.g., the passenger already contacted the airline himself, but the airline refused to pay the demanded amount or did not react to the passenger´s query. Additionally, according to court practice, it can be necessary to involve a lawyer if the airline fails to inform the passenger about his rights granted by the Regulation 261/2004 (in violation of Article 14 of this regulation).

In Austrian court proceedings, the prevailing party is entitled to receive a reimbursement of its legal fees by the opponent (in case of a partial victory: on a pro rata basis). These legal fees are calculated in accordance with the Lawyers Tariffs Act (Rechtsanwaltstarifgesetz), regardless of any possible separate agreement between lawyer and client regarding the remuneration.

However, also these legal fees are only reimbursed if the respective actions (e.g., filing a lawsuit) have been necessary. If the passenger (or his lawyer) did not contact the airline before filing a lawsuit, the airline can refuse to pay his legal fees and even demand reimbursement for its own legal fees if it acknowledges and pays the passenger´s claim at the first moment possible.

The Commercial Court Vienna had to deal with a case in which the passenger did not contact the airline first and his lawyer sent a letter of notice only to a no-reply email address used by the airline. The lawyer ignored the standardized reply email that asked him to use another email address for his query and filed a lawsuit. Subsequently, the airline acknowledged and paid the claim without undue delay, refused to pay the passenger´s legal fees and demanded reimbursement for its own legal fees. The Commercial Court Vienna decided in the airline´s favor (case number: 60 R 42/21p).

The breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances

On 7 July 2022, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided that the breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances within the meaning of Article 5 (3) of Regulation 261/2004 (case C-308/21).

In its reasoning, the ECJ once more pointed out the criteria it regards relevant when it comes to extraordinary circumstances: the events that occurred must not be inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned and they must be beyond the air carrier´s actual control.

Regarding the first criterion, the ECJ stated that, in principle, refueling operations fall within the scope of the normal exercise of an air carrier´s activity and that, therefore, a technical issue arising during the refueling would not be suitable to constitute extraordinary circumstances. However, a general failure in the refueling system managed by the airport must be treated differently than a technical issue that, by its nature, is only confined to a single aircraft. Therefore, the ECJ came to the conclusion that such general failures of the refueling system are not inherent in the normal exercise of the activity of the air carrier concerned.

Regarding the second criterion, the ECJ once again highlighted the importance of the distinction between “internal” and “external” events, whereas only “external” events are regarded to be beyond the air carrier´s actual control. Therefore, if the refueling system at an airport is managed by this airport or a third party, a general breakdown of this system is regarded to be beyond the air carrier´s control.

Since both criteria of extraordinary circumstances are met, the ECJ decided that the general breakdown of an airport´s refueling system constitutes extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, the respective air carrier is not obliged to pay compensation to the passengers, provided that all reasonable measures were taken.

Strikes because of an authority´s decision constitute extraordinary circumstances

On 30 June 2022, the district court Schwechat ruled in three cases we are handling for a client that strikes of the ground handling staff are extraordinary if the reason for such strikes is an authority´s decision. The court argues that such strikes that are based on demands that can only be fulfilled by authorities (and not the airline itself) are beyond the airline´s control.

These rulings are in line with the ECJ´s ruling C-28/20, in which the ECJ mentioned: “If, however, such a strike originates from demands which only the public authorities can satisfy and which, accordingly, are beyond the actual control of the air carrier concerned, it is capable of constituting an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ […]”

Therefore, airlines are not obliged to pay compensation (Art 7 of Reg 261/2004) if flights are cancelled or significantly delayed due to such strikes, provided that all reasonable measures in connection therewith are taken.