Are you sure that yogurt caused that damage to your computer?

Jocelyn Kent Smith came to us with one of the most bizarre requests for help our advocates have ever encountered. Smith wanted our help in recovering compensation for damage to her computer, which she claims occurred on a Virgin Atlantic flight. But when we read her story and saw her photos, we doubted her version of events.

According to Smith, the damage to her new ASUS laptop took place when she inserted it in the pocket of the seat in front of her on a flight from London to Boston. When she removed it, claims Smith, it was covered with yogurt, which severely damaged the input and output ports of her computer.

Smith sent us photos that show that something got into her computer’s motherboard and damaged it, but that substance doesn’t appear to be yogurt — which is unlikely to be found in an airline seat pocket. Even if Smith is correct about yogurt being the cause of the damage, her story is a reminder to check the airline seat pocket in front of you for anything that could cause damage.

Smith posted about her case to our forum. She simultaneously asked our advocates to help her recover the cost of repairs to her computer.

Our forum member told Smith that it is unlikely that yogurt caused the damage to her computer. They also mentioned that because the computer was new, it might still be covered by a warranty.

“I have an estimate of the amount for repair from the manufacturer,” Smith told the forum members. “Luckily my computer is covered for spills during the first year. If I choose to fix the computer under this warranty, it’s voided. Instead, I was hoping that since Virgin acknowledged the damage in one email, that they should be responsible for the bill, thereby allowing the warranty to remain intact for the remainder of the year.”

Virgin Atlantic’s acknowledgment of the damage was news to our advocates. As neither Smith’s help request nor the documentation she had provided to us contained any such acknowledgment, our advocates asked her to submit documentation of it.

We learned that after the flight, Smith contacted Virgin Atlantic’s customer service to request reimbursement for the cost of repairs to her computer, attaching the photo at the top of this story. (Executive contacts for Virgin Atlantic can be found on our website.) She received the following response:

Dear Ms. Smith,

Thank you for your email with regards to your recent flight with Virgin Atlantic. Please allow me to apologise for the damage caused to your laptop onboard. I can only imagine the frustration this incident must have caused.

We understand how important your belongings are to you so we do everything we can to make sure we take care of them during your flight. However, given the industry we’re in, that may not always be possible. In these circumstances we’ll seek to fix the problem as efficiently as possible, keeping you updated every step of the way.

Please be advised I have read through your claim and also noted the photographs that you provided. Due to the very nature of this item being a high-value electrical item, in the first instance we would respectfully advise you to speak with your travel insurance. Due to the airline’s limited liability in circumstances such as this, it is possible that theirs may extend further than that of our own.

Please let me assure you that this is not said with a view to evading responsibility for the circumstances, as under the laws of subrogation your insurance company will claim back their losses from the airline.

Ms. Smith, I wish to once again apologise for the damage caused. I hope that despite this experience, we have an opportunity to welcome you back on board again soon. It would be a pleasure to provide you with the usual high level of service that you deserve.

In Smith’s response to this letter, she claimed that Virgin Atlantic was responsible for the damage because of “a lack of cleaning by [the airline’s] staff.”

A Virgin Atlantic agent responded: “Electrical items and high-value items are taken onboard at passengers’ own risk and are the sole responsibility of the passenger. As an airline I’m afraid we would not be able to reimburse you to replace or repair the laptop on this occasion.”

Virgin Atlantic’s conditions of carriage provide that

We will not be liable for Damage to Unchecked Baggage unless such Damage is caused by our negligence.

Our maximum liability is limited to the local currency equivalent of 1,131 Special Drawing Rights per Passenger for Unchecked and Checked Baggage.

Our maximum liability is limited to … a maximum of the national currency equivalent of 1,131 SDRs per passenger for Unchecked and Checked Baggage where the Montreal Convention applies. All claims made under the Montreal Convention must be substantiated by documented proof of purchase, including date and price of purchase. Depreciation will be deducted.

So if Virgin Atlantic was, in fact, responsible for the damage to the computer, then it would owe Smith 532 SDRs (about $310), the amount Smith claims as the cost of computer repairs. Smith did not provide our advocates with any receipts or estimates of repair costs that indicated the nature of the damage.

But our advocates believe that Virgin Atlantic is not at fault. And ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Smith took her computer to ASUS where, she claims, ASUS pressured her to either pay for repairs or have their cost covered under the warranty. She opted for the latter.

The takeaways from Smith’s case are to make absolutely certain that an airline is responsible for damaging any property, whether checked or brought on board a flight, before filing a claim for reimbursement; to file such a claim at the time of the incident, and not later, as Smith did; and to provide our advocates with complete information when asking for our help. When that doesn’t happen, there is nothing our advocates or our forum members can do to help you.

And don’t stick anything in an airline seat pocket without checking it first — especially a laptop.

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