By Georgia D. Koutouzos, J.D.
Arguing that the split in the federal appellate circuits over the applicable standard governing aircraft products liability cases should be resolved, the manufacturer of an aircraft engine installed on a small plane that crashed and killed the pilot is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit holding that such cases may proceed using a state-law standard of care. The appeals court’s arbitrary distinction between "in-air operations" and other aspects of aviation safety has no basis in the Federal Aviation Act, the petitioner asserted, seeking an answer to the "self-evidently important" question of whether the Act preempts the application of state-law standards of care in the entire field of aviation safety (AVCO Corp. v. Sikkelee, Docket No. 16-323, filed September 6, 2016).
Procedural history. The widow of a man who had perished in the crash of a single-engine airplane he was piloting at the time sued the engine’s original maker and the manufacturers of two carburetors that subsequently had been installed on the plane during its operational lifetime, alleging that the manufacturers were liable for defects in the engine, carburetor, and fuel delivery system. A Pennsylvania federal court granted the manufacturers’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding that the widow’s state-law strict liability, breach of warranty, negligence, misrepresentation, and concert of action claims fell within the federally preempted field of aviation safety.
The widow then amended her complaint to incorporate federal standards of care by alleging violations of numerous Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Eventually, she narrowed her claims against the manufacturers to defective design (under theories of both negligence and strict liability) and failure to warn. The manufacturers again moved for summary judgment, and the trial court found that the applicable federal standard of care had been established in the engine’s FAA type certificate (i.e., design approval) itself. Reasoning that the agency issues a type certificate based on its determination that the manufacturer has complied with the pertinent regulations, the trial court held that the issuance of a type certificate for the ill-fated plane’s engine meant that the federal standard of care had been satisfied as a matter of law.
However, the trial court denied summary judgment favoring the manufacturers on the widow’s failure-to-warn claims, which were premised on the engine manufacturer’s alleged violation of a federal aviation regulation for failure to "report any failure, malfunction, or defect in any product, part, process, or article" that the company manufactured. Recognizing that its grant of partial summary judgment raised novel and complex questions concerning the scope of federal preemption in the airline industry, the trial certified its order for immediate appeal and was granted interlocutory review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Third Circuit’s ruling. The appeals court determined that neither the Federal Aviation Act nor the issuance of an aircraft engine type certificate under federal aviation regulations per se preempts all state-law aircraft design and manufacturing claims [see Products Liability Law Daily’s April 20, 2016 analysis]. As such, subject to traditional principles of conflict preemption—including those in connection with the specifications expressly set forth in a given Federal Aviation Administration type certificate—aircraft products liability cases may proceed using a state-law standard of care, the panel instructed, concluding that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment favoring the manufacturers on the widow’s design-defect claims on the basis of field preemption.
The field of aviation safety identified as preempted in prior case law does not include product manufacture and design—which continues to be governed by state tort law, subject to traditional conflict preemption principles, the panel advised, vacating and remanding the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment favoring the engine and engine parts manufacturers on the basis of federal preemption.
Reasons for granting the writ. Arguing that the case presents a question of paramount concern, the aircraft engine manufacturer asserted that the appeals court’s decision represented a reversal of course on the Third Circuit’s previous agreement with the Second and Tenth Circuits that the Federal Aviation Act preempts state-law standards of care in the entire field of aviation safety. In holding that the Aviation Act preempts state-law standards of care only in the more limited field of "in-air operations," the Third Circuit joined the Ninth and Eleventh Circuits in applying state-law standards of care, rather than federal standards, to claims that an FAA-approved aircraft or engine was defectively designed.
As such, the ruling deepens the pre-existing circuit conflict and gives rise to a lack of uniformity that the Aviation Act was intended to prevent. The arbitrary distinction between "in-air operations" and other aspects of aviation safety has no basis in the Act and, in drawing that distinction, the Third Circuit grievously misunderstood the statute and its implementing regulations, the petitioner asserted.
Question presented. Finally, the preemptive scope question is a self-evidently important one inasmuch as the U.S. Supreme Court routinely has granted review in cases presenting the question of whether federal law preempts states from regulating the design of vehicles in interstate commerce. In entrusting decisions about aircraft design to the Federal Aviation Administration, Congress intended for the agency’s regulation to be uniform and exclusive. In that regard, the Third Circuit’s decision flouts that congressional determination, the petitioner contended, asking the High Court to resolve the question of whether the Federal Aviation Act preempts the application of state-law standards of care in the entire field of aviation safety.
The case is Docket No. 16-323.
Attorneys: Catherine Slavin (Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP); Christopher Carlsen (Clyde & Co.) and Kannon K. Shanmugam (Williams & Connolly LLP) for Avco Corp.
Companies: AVCO Corp.
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