A mostly true fish story with a truly unfortunate ending

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By Christopher Elliott

Michael Patterson’s fish story is true. At least that what he says.

Somewhere between Orlando and San Jose, Costa Rica, Spirit Airlines lost a fiberglass fish mount in his checked bag that belonged to his late father. That is a fact.

(Oh I know, some of you have already sniffed, “Spirit!” But give ’em a chance, will you?)

It is also true that he had all the documentation showing the fish was worth about $4,000, he says.

Further, it’s true that he submitted a claim to Spirit as soon as it went missing, in accordance with the airline’s policies. And that Spirit left him — sorry for the pun — hanging for several months without processing his claim.

Montreal convention holds the key

“Prior to filing a claim, I spent hours on the phone with Spirit offices in Orlando, Costa Rica and Fort Lauderdale, trying to find the bags myself,” says Patterson. “I have asked them over the phone what the outcome of their investigation is, and they won’t tell me.” (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

The claim was a chore. For half a year, Patterson went back and forth with Spirit, sending it photos of the fish and verification of its value. Spirit “lost” the documentation and asked him to resend it. Then it went into radio silence, which is when he contacted me. (Related: Lied to, overcharged and almost abandoned by Spirit Airlines.)

“Please help,” he said. “I am going on the seventh month since we lost the bag, and I still don’t know any more than I did six months ago.”

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Spirit’s responsibilities are clear. If this were a domestic flight, it wouldn’t have to do anything. The fish is not covered under its contract of carriage. But since it’s an international flight, the airline’s liability is governed by the Montreal Convention, which overrides any airline policy or contract.

Article 19 of the Montreal Convention says a carrier is liable for damage occasioned by delay in the carriage by air of baggage, except to the extent that it proves that it took all reasonable measures to prevent the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures.

Spirit Airlines’ claim denial violates Montreal convention

The current liability limits are $1,692. Not quite the $4,000 he was hoping for, but far better than nothing.

Oh, and one other thing: article 26 says any provision that tries to relieve a carrier of liability or to fix a lower limit than that which is laid down in the convention is null and void. Violations of the convention are a violation of U.S. law.

In other words, Spirit may have made the wrong call.

My advocacy team and I asked Spirit if it cared to review Patterson’s claim again. He received a call from Spirit the same day.

“A representative told me that the claim had been denied, but she would not say why,” he said. “She told me to send an email and request that they send it by email, which I did, and still have not heard from them.”

A few weeks later, he received an email from Spirit. It said he hadn’t filed a claim within the required 30 days and that it needed to be notarized but wasn’t. It also mentioned he provided an incorrect phone number for the fiberglass mount manufacturer to Spirit’s claims department. This hinted that his claim might be a fish story.

Sigh. Of course Spirit doesn’t want to pay for Patterson’s fish. But international law is what it is.

I’m filing this under ‘case dismissed,’. Although I believe the Aviation Consumer Protection Division at the Transportation Department may find it interesting. They’re such sticklers when it comes to breaking the law.

Who do you believe?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in São Paulo.

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