Michel and Lynda Thibodeau had sued the airline because they say they were not properly served in the French language by flight attendants on a series of half a dozen Air Canada Jazz flights between Toronto, Ottawa and Atlanta in 2009.
The couple says at no point during various check-ins, while boarding and then during flights, were they offered service in French. One announcement about a change in baggage carousels was only made in English, they said.
In one of the case's most highly publicized details, Thibodeau says when he ordered a 7-Up drink in French, he was instead brought a Sprite.
As a former Crown corporation, Air Canada and its then-affiliate Jazz are bound by the Official Languages Act to supply bilingual services where there is "significant demand" for them — something other airlines are not.
Lower courts had found in favour of the couple and awarded damages of $12,000. The Thibodeaus were looking for as much as an additional $500,000 in "punitive and exemplary" damages in the case. But Canada's top court ruled Tuesday that while their French-language rights were indeed violated, they do not qualify for monetary damages.
Under Canada's Official Languages Act, remedies for violations must be "appropriate and just in the circumstances." Air Canada has already apologized to the couple for the incident, which the court said was an appropriate response in this case.
Also, since the case involved flights between the U.S. and Canada, it is covered under an international treaty that airlines adhere to known as the Montreal Convention which states that airlines must pay compensation to customers in cases of personal injury, or damage to property — not language rights.
"The claims before this Court fall squarely within the exclusion established by the Montreal Convention," the Supreme Court said in its ruling Tuesday.
So the court struck down a lower court's finding that each of the Thibodeaus was entitled to $6,000 in compensation.
In short, the Supreme Court of Canada said Tuesday the Thibodeaus do indeed have a right to services in French. But if they don't get them, they don't qualify for monetary damages.
Five judges backed the decision, while two dissented.