When Bags Fly: Airline Baggage and Cargo Liability

Denis Grigoras

Denis is a lawyer who draws on his background in complex legal disputes and transactions to problem-solve for his clients.

When your cargo or luggage gets damaged or lost during international air transport, you might think that the airline will compensate you for your losses. However, the legal landscape surrounding airline liability for international cargo and baggage is complex. It’s governed by international conventions like the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Convention, which establish specific rules and liability limits for airlines.

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Airline Baggage and Cargo Liability


When your cargo or luggage gets damaged or lost during international air transport, you might think that the airline will compensate you for your losses. However, the legal landscape surrounding airline liability for international cargo and baggage is complex. It’s governed by international conventions like the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Convention, which establish specific rules and liability limits for airlines. This blog post aims to help you understand these rules and how they affect your rights as a passenger or shipper.

Deciphering Liability Caps: Warsaw Convention and the Hague Protocol

Under international law, airlines carry a set amount of liability for loss or damage of goods or baggage. These liability limits are established by the Warsaw Convention, later amended by the Montreal Protocol No. 4 and the Montreal Convention. Airlines are presumed liable for damage up to the lesser of the actual loss value or a set amount per pound (or kilogram), without the need for the claimant to prove the airline’s negligence. They only need to prove that the goods or luggage were handed over in good condition, and either did not arrive or arrived damaged. However, if the value of the lost or damaged goods is greater than this set limit, and the shipper didn’t declare a higher value, the shipper or passenger might not want the Convention to limit the airline’s liability. They might argue that the Convention shouldn’t apply or that the airline can’t use its liability limits because it didn’t provide correct documentation or because of its willful misconduct.

Under the Warsaw Convention, the airline’s liability for lost or damaged air cargo or checked baggage is capped at 250 francs per kilogram, roughly equivalent to $9.07 per pound or $20 per kilogram. This limit can be exceeded if the shipper declares a higher value for their goods and pays an additional fee, as long as the damages suffered match or exceed this declared value.

With the introduction of Montreal Protocol No. 4 and the Montreal Convention, the liability limit for cargo and checked baggage was raised to 17 Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) per kilogram, around $27 per kilogram, or $59 per pound. As with the Warsaw Convention, this limit can be raised if the shipper declares a higher value and pays an extra fee.

When it comes to calculating compensation for damaged or lost items, courts typically multiply the liability limit by the weight of the individual package that was lost or damaged. However, if the package is a crucial part of the whole shipment, the weight of the entire shipment is used to calculate the compensation. In other words, if a small but vital part of a large shipment is lost or damaged, compensation may be calculated based on the total weight of the entire shipment, not just the weight of the lost or damaged item.

Circumstances Leading to Surpassing the Liability Threshold

Typically, passengers or shippers have five potential ways to bypass these liability limits:

  1. The movement was not international in character, and did not involve transportation by air.
  2. It was not transportation by air.
  3. The baggage claim check ticket (issued when luggage is checked) was deficient.
  4. The air waybill was deficient.
  5. The carrier engaged in willful misconduct.

When the Transportation Isn’t Considered Global

International transportation, as defined by these conventions, involves a journey that starts in one country and ends in another. Alternatively, it can also involve a journey that begins and ends within the same country, provided there’s a scheduled stop in another country. Importantly, these rules apply even if the journey involves multiple stages or different carriers, as long as it’s considered a single, continuous movement by the involved parties. For instance, if a cargo shipment is flown domestically to connect with an international flight, the conventions still apply. Even if the cargo is transported by a surface carrier for part of the journey, if it’s part of an international shipment, the conventions remain in effect.

In simpler terms, as long as the journey involves crossing international borders or includes a stop in another country, the rules of the Warsaw Convention or Montreal Convention apply. This is true even if part of the transportation happens within a single country, or by different methods of transport. These conventions are in place to establish who is responsible if something goes wrong during the journey, such as loss or damage to goods or baggage.

When the Journey Isn’t Made by Air

The conventions dictate who is responsible when loss, damage, or delay of baggage or freight occurs during air transportation. However, there are certain nuances. For example, according to the Warsaw Convention, any land transportation performed outside an airport isn’t considered “transportation by air,” unless it’s part of an air transport contract for loading, delivery, or transshipment. The Montreal Protocol No. 4 and Montreal Convention, on the other hand, define the “carriage by air” as the period when the cargo is under the carrier’s control, regardless of location.

When the Baggage Claim Check Doesn’t Meet Standards

The Warsaw Convention mandates airlines to issue detailed baggage claim checks when accepting checked luggage. Yet, some courts allow these specifics on the passenger’s ticket. Even with errors or missing baggage checks, the carriage contract remains valid. However, missing vital data (ticket number, baggage weight) prevents carriers from limiting liability under Article 22 of the Warsaw Convention. No baggage check at all equals loss of liability limitation rights.

Various cases have demonstrated these principles. Courts have sometimes overlooked minor errors in baggage checks, especially for commercial shippers, if claimants aren’t harmed.

The Hague Protocol and Montreal Convention simplified baggage claim requirements and removed liability caps. Still, some courts insist on specific baggage details to limit airlines’ liability. In Spanner v. United Airlines, missing baggage details meant Warsaw Convention‘s liability limit couldn’t apply.

An unusual ruling in Foord v. United Airlines, Canada, deemed the airline couldn’t limit liability under the Montreal Convention due to lack of a liability limitation notice. This was despite convention rules stating otherwise.

In essence, while conventions and laws govern baggage liability, their interpretation and application can vary significantly based on case details and jurisdiction.

Evaluating the Deficiencies in Air Waybills

The air waybill, serving as a contract between the sender and the carrier, must contain specific information. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in the carrier losing the protection of limited liability. However, subsequent amendments have reduced these requirements and made the liability ceilings unbreakable regardless of the air waybill’s deficiency.

Willful Misconduct: When Carriers Cross the Line

The liability limit can be exceeded if the plaintiff proves that the airline, or its employees, engaged in “willful misconduct.” This is a term that refers to intentional actions or negligence of such severity that it’s almost as though harm was intended. It’s important to note that willful misconduct is more than just ordinary or even gross negligence. It involves knowingly performing an act or failing to perform an act, with the understanding that it will probably result in injury or damage. In other words, it’s about recklessly ignoring the potential consequences of one’s actions.

In determining whether the actions of an airline constitute willful misconduct, courts often apply a “subjective” test. This means that the court considers the intent of the individual rather than just the outcomes of their actions. Simply put, the carrier must either know they’re acting wrongfully or be recklessly indifferent to the results of their actions.

Interestingly, the burden of proof often shifts to the airline to disprove allegations of willful misconduct, especially when the plaintiff presents strong evidence. This shift in responsibility occurs because the airline typically has exclusive access to information that could either prove or disprove these allegations.

However, it’s important to understand that the Montreal Convention and Montreal Protocol No. 4 have slightly different rules. For instance, while these conventions still allow the liability ceiling to be exceeded for personal injury or damage to baggage due to willful misconduct, the liability limits for cargo damage are unbreakable, regardless of the circumstances.

It’s worth noting that even if the airline’s actions fall under the definition of “willful misconduct,” this doesn’t automatically guarantee that the plaintiff will be awarded damages exceeding the liability limit. The final decision is left to the local jurisdiction, and past cases have seen mixed results.


In conclusion, the question of airline liability for international cargo and baggage involves navigating through complex legal landscapes created by international conventions like the Warsaw Convention, the Hague Protocol, Montreal Protocol No. 4, and the Montreal Convention. While these conventions establish the general rules and liability limits, it’s ultimately up to the claimant to prove their case and possibly exceed these limits.

They can do this by demonstrating that the transportation was not international, it wasn’t by air, the baggage claim check was deficient, the air waybill was deficient, or the carrier engaged in willful misconduct. However, the success of these strategies varies from case to case and jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

It’s also important to remember that claimants have other options to protect their interests, such as declaring a higher value for their goods or purchasing insurance. These can provide additional avenues for recovering losses in the event of damage or loss during air transportation.

Navigating these complex legal waters can be challenging for the average person. Therefore, if you find yourself facing such a situation, it’s recommended to seek advice from a legal expert knowledgeable in international transport laws. They can help you understand your rights, responsibilities, and the best course of action to take.

Remember, every situation is unique, and what worked in one case may not necessarily apply to yours. Therefore, understanding the specifics of your situation and seeking appropriate legal counsel is always the best strategy.

Example: Koliada v. Lufthansa German Airlines

This was a small claims court lawsuit by Koliada against Lufthansa German Airlines for not fulfilling their contract. Koliada flew from Moscow to Toronto on a Lufthansa flight. He had packed a laptop, a camera, and a suit in one of his bags, all worth a total of $4,220 US. He had concerns about the safety of these items in his checked luggage and shared these concerns with a Lufthansa representative. He was reassured that his belongings were secure and there were no extra charges needed.

However, when Koliada arrived in Toronto, his luggage was missing. While his bag was eventually found, his laptop, camera, and suit were gone. Lufthansa compensated him with $742, citing that the Warsaw Convention limited their responsibility to 250 francs per kilogram, unless the passenger declared the value of the items and paid an extra fee if asked.

Koliada sued Lufthansa and won the case, receiving a total of $5,277. He had verbally informed the airline about the value of his belongings, which was found to be acceptable under the Convention, even though no extra fee was paid – Lufthansa hadn’t asked for one. The airline’s rule that claimed they weren’t responsible for this kind of loss didn’t apply to Koliada, because it contradicted the Convention and it wasn’t part of his agreement with Lufthansa. They also hadn’t made him aware of this rule. The court ruled that the mention of Lufthansa’s rules on the ticket wasn’t enough to make Koliada aware of their liability limitation.

The total value of the lost items was $6,019 in Canadian dollars. After subtracting the compensation that Lufthansa had already paid, Koliada received the remaining amount.

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