HOLIDAYMAKERS will be entitled to claim compensation from airlines for flight delays caused by other passengers for the first time, following a watershed British court case.

Charter airline, Thomas Cook, has been ordered to pay €1,068 (£827) to Maria Edwards and her family after another passenger accidentally damaged an emergency door handle on the plane, resulting in a nine-hour delay on the Edwards' return flight to the UK from Tunisia.

The ruling at Birmingham County Court could see thousands of British holidaymakers claim compensation if they arrive at their destination more than three hours late due to disruption caused by another passenger.

Until now, airlines insisted that the EU regulation relating to delays did not apply under such circumstances.

Mrs Edwards, 47, first brought the case against Thomas Cook in August 2014.

She said: “We were initially told by Thomas Cook that there would be a one and a half hour delay to our flight, but when we actually boarded we had been waiting more than nine hours.

"Each passenger was allowed a €5 (£3.90) voucher to purchase food and drink, but the choice was so limited in the airport shop, that it hardly made a difference.

"My partner and I were travelling with two small children and for anyone who has travelled with young kids before, you can imagine how difficult the whole ordeal was.

“We were given no updates, nobody told us anything and when we eventually boarded the flight, we found out that the reason the flight was so delayed, was because a passenger on a previous flight – 24 hours earlier – had accidentally broken an emergency door handle and the parts needed to fix it had to be flown over from France.

"We later discovered that when the maintenance crew had attempted to fix it, they accidentally deployed the emergency slide, delaying us further – it beggars belief.”

Compensation specialists, EUclaim, who represented Mrs Edwards, believe the case could pave the way to other potential claims involving unruly or sick passengers.

Adeline Noordehaven, UK manager at EUclaim, said: “The Court has judged that airlines have to take a level of responsibly for passenger actions.

“The passenger who caused this delay was not disruptive or unruly and the damage occurred during his 'normal use of the aircraft', but it still opens up an interesting debate on where passenger responsibility begins and ends for airlines. For example, a passenger consuming a glass of wine served on board would be considered 'normal use of the aircraft', but what about when one glass turns into three and the passenger becomes intoxicated? This ruling could open the door to a whole new type of delay compensation."

EU Regulation 261/2004 was introduced in 2005, initially to guarantee passengers compensation for flight cancellations or if they were denied boarding, for example because the airline had overbooked the flight.

In 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled that compensation should be extended to include delays of more than three hours.

The regulation applies to any flight departing an EU airport and any flight into the EU on an EU-based carrier, but it is estimated that airlines have dodged millions of pounds in claims by misusing the "extraordinary circumstances" clause.

However, a spokesman for Thomas Cook Airlines said it stood by its position.

He said: “We’re always extremely sorry for any delay and our main focus is on getting our passengers to and from holiday on time.

"In just three years our long delays have dropped from four percent to less than one percent making us one of the highest performing airlines in the industry. 

"The claim of a landmark ruling lacks credibility because County Court judgments cannot create legal precedents. We do not believe a comparison can be made between unintentional passenger damage and disruptive passenger claims.

"We have recently successfully defended cases of a similar nature where district judges have ruled that passenger damage is an extraordinary circumstance. We have also successfully defended cases of disruptive passengers.”