A plane passenger kept on the tarmac for seven hours without food, water or appropriate sanitary facilities while airport staff attempted to dig out from a blizzard cannot recover damages, a federal judge has ruled. “Hers is a most appealing case. Yet the law can only give her sympathy, not monetary compensation. An international treaty and New York law bar recovery,” Eastern District Judge Jack Weinstein (See Profile) wrote in Vumbaca v. Terminal One Group Association, 11-cv-5535.

When arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport from Rome on Dec. 28, 2010—a day after more than 15 inches of snow blanketed the airport—Vivian Vumbaca’s flight was kept on the tarmac overnight because gates were blocked by empty planes or snow conditions. Vumbaca said while on board, there were only snacks and juice for sustenance, and that she was seated near a bathroom that smelled “horrible.” She said she was tired and suffered stomach aches for the next three days. At least 16 flights arriving after the blizzard stayed on the tarmac more than four hours.

Vumbaca sued the operator of the terminal where she arrived, Terminal One Group Association, arguing negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and other claims. While empathizing with her experience, Weinstein on April 19 observed the claims were not recoverable under the Montreal Convention, an international treaty creating a standard system of liability for international air carriers and their agents. For example, Vumbaca could not show the requisite “bodily injury” under Article 17 of the convention, the judge said in his 59-page ruling.