British Airways was yesterday ordered by a court in Paris to pay at least pounds 3m in damages to French passengers it flew to Kuwait hours after the Iraq invasion in 1990. The French ruling has restored hope to 24 British passengers, also held as Saddam Hussein's "human shields", whose appeal cases are due to be heard in the House of Lords.
The Paris court ruled that British Airways had put passengers in undue danger by stopping in Kuwait and awarded 61 French nationals, who were among 367 passengers, between pounds 50,000 and pounds 80,000 each, depending on how long they were held.
Passengers on flight BA149 alleged that the landing, which was not listed on their tickets, was made to drop off about a dozen British SAS commandos, a claim British Airways denies.
Frank Lefevre, of Quantum Claims, in Aberdeen, who is representing British passengers, said: "After the cases went through their respective courts of appeal our only remedy was to appeal to the House of Lords. This will go ahead unless the French decision has the effect of making British Airways and their legal advisers think again."
Mr Lefevre believes the French precedent will provide "persuasive authority" for the 11 English and 13 Scottish passengers' cases in the Lords.
One of his clients, John Chappell, 47, who was held hostage along with his wife and two children, said: "This is great news. I'm happy that at last one court in the world has seen it for what it is and that it looks as though the French are going to get some compensation for it, quite rightly so."
"I don't think a day goes by when we don't think of some aspect of it. My wife is currently off work for depression which is a direct result of the whole incident."
According to Frank Patterson, of Pannone and Partners, in Manchester, also representing claimants, the implications for the British passengers' cases depends on whether the French courts were applying the Warsaw Convention or general French law.
"It is argued that the Warsaw Convention does not afford compensation unless there is bodily injury which has taken place in actual flying or getting on or off the plane. In this case, passengers sustained psychological injury...
"We need to know how they won the case. If they decided that bodily injury includes psychological injury, we are talking about the interpretation of an international convention."
British Airways described the damages ruling as "extraordinary" and said it was considering an appeal. A spokeswoman said: "The judgement seems to be based on the proposition that the aircraft made an unscheduled stop in Kuwait for the purposes of landing military personnel there. This is untrue.
"It is preposterous to suggest that British Airways would deliberately endanger its passengers, employees and the aircraft itself in any way. In terms of compensation, many claims by passengers have already been settled in accordance with British Airways' humanitarian policy on an ex-gratia basis." The spokeswoman refused to disclose details of the claims.