The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that the Federal Aviation Act does not preempt state law product liability claims, reversing a lower court’s decision in favor of aircraft engine manufacturers. The ruling came in a widow’s suit alleging that defects in a single-engine plane’s design caused her husband’s fatal crash. In a precedential decision, a three-judge panel said that the text and history of the law show no evidence that Congress intended the FAA to preempt state law product liability claims. The panel said that the Pennsylvania district court faulted in concluding that an “aircraft type certificate” issued by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for the aircraft engine meant that the federal standard of care had been satisfied as a matter of law. The panel said:
In light of the presumption against preemption, absent clear evidence that Congress intended the mere issuance of a type certificate to foreclose all design defect claims, state tort suits using state standards of care may proceed subject only to traditional conflict preemption principles.
The lower court had apparently wrestled with the Third Circuit’s 1999 decision in Abdullah v. American Airlines, in which the panel held that state law negligence claims for injuries sustained during a flight were preempted by federal law. In that case, it ruled in the aircraft engine makers’ favor. The panel said in the case:
Recognizing that its grant of partial summary judgment raised novel and complex questions concerning the reach of Abdullah and the scope of preemption in the airlines industry, the district court certified the order for immediate appeal, and we granted interlocutory review.
A decade after the Abdullah decision, the Third Circuit clarified in another ruling that the field of airline safety preempted by federal law is limited to “in air” operations, according to the opinion. The suit stems from a 2005 crash of a Textron Lycoming engine made in 1969 and installed in a Cessna 172N that crashed and killed David Sikkelee shortly after he took off from a small North Carolina airport, according to the panel. His widow, Jill Sikkelee, claims that his plane lost power and crashed as a result of a malfunction or defect in the engine’s carburetor. Specifically, the defect caused raw fuel to leak out of the carburetor into the engine.
Jill Sikkelee first filed suit in 2007 in Pennsylvania federal court against 17 companies, asserting state law claims including strict liability, breach of warranty and negligence. In 2010, the lower court dismissed the suit, ruling that Sikkelee’s state law claims, premised on state law standards of care, fell within the preempted field of airline safety outlined in Abdullah. The widow then filed an amended complaint, but this time she also incorporated allegations of violations of numerous FAA regulations. The Plaintiff’s claims against Lycoming Engines, a division of Avco Corp., were eventually narrowed to defective design and failure to warn, according to the panel.
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