This came up after listening to a Rick Steves podcast on travel.

He and I have both apparently wondered - when the passenger in front suddenly reclines their seat and nearly decapitates your laptop - if they do damage it when doing so, legally, is it:

  • the airline's responsibility
  • your responsibility
  • the passenger's responsibility
  • that passenger asking for the fourth gin and tonic's responsibility
  • nobody's legal responsibility, and tough luck
  • the pilot's?

In so much as - you'll need to get it fixed/replaced, so who is going to be paying for it?

I'd like an official law/statement/precedent on this, ideally.

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    I guess my point was - do you have any recourse? On the ground if someone accidentally crashes into your car, they pay by law, not if they volunteer to do so. I'm expecting this would apply in-flight too. – Mark Mayo Oct 29 '14 at 3:27
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    Only in a lawsuit-happy country like the US would this even be a concern. Its like saying that the drink spilled on your clothes due to turbulence and now its the airline's fault. – Burhan Khalid Oct 29 '14 at 6:47
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    @BurhanKhalid am not in the US, but if someone accidentally smashed my laptop, I'd be pretty upset. – Mark Mayo Oct 29 '14 at 8:38
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    Can a seat really decapitate a laptop (they don't move by a lot)? Shouldn't you setup your laptop in a way that take into account seat reclining (which is an action that have a high chance of hapenning)? Negligence might be more on the laptop owner than the person sitting in front. (Tort?) – the_lotus Oct 29 '14 at 15:39
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    Generally, anyone who reclines a seat (in economy) on an airliner, is basically a bad person. It is unbelievably un-social and rude to recline your seat. – Fattie Oct 29 '14 at 16:49

In most juristictions that operate with something approaching sanity, someone is liable for accidental damage in the following three cases:

  1. They caused the damage deliberately or with "blameworthy carelessness".

  2. They have entered into a contract where they explicitly accept to be responsible for the risk.

  3. The law contains an explicit exception for the situation and says they are liable in the situation even without wrongdoing or contract ("strict liability"). For example, in most places the owner of an aircraft is liable for any damage it causes even if the owner did nothing wrong and the one who suffered the damage is not a passenger.

In the present question it seems that the only thing that could possibly apply is whether the passenger who reclined his seat would be liable under theory (1). It seems to be easy enough to argue that he was being careless, but what a court will have to decide is then whether this carelessness was "blameworthy" (my word, but different jurisdictions use various legal codewords for essentially this concept) -- in other words, was or wasn't he less careful that one could reasonably expect people in general to be?

I suspect that most courts would come to the conclusion that no, one cannot in general expect passengers not to recline their seats when the airline provides a seat that can recline -- and no, one cannot in general expect passengers to always ask they guy behind them before they recline, however nice it would be if everyone did that. So it will rule that the guy was not "blameworthily" careless, and can't be liable.

You could certainly have your day in court trying to convince it otherwise, though, if you find a court with jurisdiction over the passenger.

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    At least in the UK law, "criminal damage" offence includes "reckless" acts, i.e. acts where a the person could have foreseen that damage was likely to be caused by the actions yet proceeded with the actions nonetheless. It's this matter of "recklessness" that's usually the sticking point in courts. If you can prove that the person in front of you could have reasonably foreseen that suddenly reclining the seat would cause the damage, then, at least under the UK law, he/she is liable. – Aleks G Oct 29 '14 at 9:54
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    @pnuts "blameworthy carelessness" explicitly means some cases of accidental damage, depending on the circumstances - it all comes down to a (subjective?) evaluation of the circumstances, is the behavior "blameworthy" or not. E.g. if I accidentally stumble on a fragile item in a shop and break it, it's definitely an accident and most likely 'blameworthy carelessness' where I'd be expected to pay for it. – Peteris Oct 29 '14 at 12:20
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    @pnuts depends on the cost of the laptop - small claims court (or the equivalent depending on the country) is definitely an option, it's simply a question if the required effort * chance of success is worth it. – Peteris Oct 29 '14 at 12:30
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    @pnuts I agree - the major issue here may be not the jurisdiction details of the aircraft, but the jurisdiction/nationality of the other passenger; if you come from the same country (which is quite possible) then it's plausible, if it's a french plane flying from Egypt to Sudan, and one of you is from USA and the other from China... then forget about it unless the harm is so huge that you can get the local police involved. – Peteris Oct 29 '14 at 12:42
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    @AleksG As a tall individual, reclining seats have large ramifications on my comfort. Worse, a seat on a flight caused bruising to my knees. Changing the another passengers space will always have the potential for damage. – Gusdor Oct 30 '14 at 10:28

From a common sense point of view - #5 .... its an accident, deal with it.

In the hands of a lawyer - #1, #3 & #6 .... the shotgun approach, sue them all and hope one settles rather than fight the case in court.

  • "the shotgun approach". I should use that phrase more often. – AKS Oct 29 '14 at 16:36
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    "I placed an expensive, fragile item on a shakey surface behind a heavy object that could move backwards quickly without warning at almost any time. This resulted in the item being broken. Who can I sue?" – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 30 '14 at 10:51

As for liability, everything depends on what jurisdiction you'll be able to work. If it will be the European (continental - based on Napoleonic Code) law, then you're liable for every damage you have caused, and the factor of 'recklessness' or 'guilt' is unimportant.

So the question will arise, who have caused the damage to the laptop, which is not obvious.

If you place your laptop on the middle of the street, and someones drive on it, you will be the one that have damaged it - by placing it on the middle of the street - not the driver. So if you place your laptop in unadequate place, and therefore the damage, you can expect the court will find you responsible for the damage.

But if you have placed your laptop on the desk, and the passanger before you have reclined rapidly without looking back, they will be most likely responsible for the damage - the same as if they throw it out of your hand by rapid movement.

However, if you can prove, that the seats are so designed, that such damages are too likely to happen, the airline may be made responsible - it all depends on what the judge will find 'too likely' or 'badly designed'. If the seat decline when pressing a button which is easy to press accidentally, it's very likely the responsibility of the airline.

It would be hard to find suitable precedent, because each of such cases will be handled individually.

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    I don't think that is a correct summary of "European continental" law in general. For example, in German law the default rule of liability (§276 Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) is that people are liable for "Vorsatz und Fahrlässigkeit", more or less: deliberate or negligent. Merely being the "cause" of damage without negligence would not trigger liability under this rule. – hmakholm left over Monica Nov 7 '14 at 17:32

If this is a domestic flight, then the laws of the country take precedence (i.e., everyone else's guesswork answers probably apply.)

If this is an international flight, however, the Warsaw Convention covers this. According to Clauses 17 and 18 of the Warsaw Convention, the airline is liable for any injury (to people, clause 17) or damage (to property, clause 18) that occurs during the flight.

  • Check out article 20: The carrier is not liable if he proves that he and his agents have taken all necessary measures to avoid the damage or that it was impossible for him or them to take such measures. So if I smash your laptop (or your face), you won't be able to sue the airline for this. – Dmitry Grigoryev Mar 8 '17 at 9:09
  • Interesting thought, but if the airline seat can recline and destroy a laptop, do you think the seats were designed not to damage laptops? The question isn't about travelers attacking each other - rather just using the equipment installed in the cabin. – Douglas Held Mar 9 '17 at 20:42

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