Brenda Houston was an experienced pilot who flew Boeing 737s, 757s and 767s for United Airlines. On the evening of July 28, 2008, Ms. Houston was flying a much smaller airplane, a 1976 Cessna 172N, and it would be her last flight. The Seattle Times reported that she was accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter, Beth Crews, and a 58-year-old retired orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Virgil Becker. The three were flying from Roche Harbor to Auburn, Washington, when the plane crashed just after 8:30 p.m. in the rugged terrain of the Bald Mountain area. The crash claimed the lives of all three occupants.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) local office investigated the crash. Based upon the federal investigators’ findings, Dr. Becker’s family claimed that a poorly manufactured carburetor float caused the engine to stall, which ultimately caused the crash. The NTSB examined the carburetor float and found that one of the float’s chambers was completely filled with aviation fuel. Court documents explain that, “[a] float filled with fuel can force the engine’s fuel feed to remain open, causing the engine to flood and stall out.” The federal investigation did not offer a reason for the filled float; however, the family alleged that the leak occurred because Forward Technology Industries Inc. (FTI), the company that built the carburetor, failed to weld it correctly.
The family filed suit against FTI alleging a number of claims including a state product liability claim. The King County Superior Court agreed with FTI’s argument that federal law, the Federal Aviation Act of 1994 (Act), preempted the state’s product liability law because the Act’s regulations were so pervasive that it excluded any other law’s authority – implied field preemption. The King County Superior Court granted FTI’s motion for summary judgment – dismissing the claim against FTI. The Washington State Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court. However, the state Supreme Court overturned the ruling, holding that the Act did not preempt state product liability law.
The Washington State Supreme Court recognized two general guiding principles about state product liability law and federal preemption. In general, state law governs product liability claims and, typically, there is a presumption against finding implied federal preemption. It then relied on two recent federal courts’ opinions about a similar question of law to support its applying these principles to the case at hand.
The Third Circuit, in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., held that although the Act preempts the field of aviation safety, it does not preempt all design and manufacturing claims. It also held that the Act directed the FAA to create federal “minimum standards” for aviation safety, but never intended to regulate the whole industry.
Two Ninth Circuit decisions also provided guidance in Becker. In Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, the Ninth Circuit held that the federal Act did preempt state law because the issue in that case, failure to warn about the increased risk of deep vein thrombosis from sitting for prolonged periods in cramped airplane seats, did fall within the FAA’s pervasive regulations of passenger warnings. The Ninth Circuit narrowed that holding in Martin v. Midwest Express Holdings, Inc. After falling down airstairs, a passenger sued the airlines under state product liability law. The court agreed that state law should prevail because the FAA had not “comprehensively regulated” the stairs and, therefore, had not intended to preempt state law.
Additionally, the Washington State Supreme Court also determined that the history of the Act showed no Congressional intent to preempt state law. On two separate occasions, in 1989 and 1993, proposed legislation would have preempted all state tort liability for general aviation accidents. Congress rejected both of these attempts to preempt state law. Specifically, in 1989, a Senate Judiciary committee report explained that committee members did not want to take this right from the states. The committee members believed states should be able “to determine their own standard of liability.”
Aviation cases in the future now have a clear framework for determining when federal preemption applies. Based on Becker and decisions from the Third and Ninth Circuits, federal preemption will be a seldom occurrence. If you have any questions contact Mike Andrews at 800-898-2034 or by email at Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com.
Sources: Seattle Times and Mondaq
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