Third Circuit Affirms That State Products Liability Law Can Apply to Plane Crashes

Richard Wolf

e959aadc1dcbb3b19c96a57e80fa6a54The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit’s recently held in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., 822 F.3d 680 (3d Cir. 2016) that aircraft manufacturers may be held liable for state products liability claims. In this case, the defendant averred that products liability claims fell within the “field of air safety” and were thus preempted by federal aviation law. Sikkelee, 822 F.3d at 685. The Third Circuit held that products liability claims under state law involving aircraft are not automatically preempted by federal law, although they may be preempted on an individual basis if they conflict with a specific federal statute or regulation. Id. at 709.

In Sikkelee, the widow of a pilot sued the manufacturer of an aircraft engine which she alleged was improperly designed, resulting in the plane’s crash and her husband’s death. Id. at 685-86. The United States Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment in favor of the engine manufacturer on the question of defective design. Id. at 686. It held that the standard of care was a “type certificate,” a certification from the Federal Aviation Administration that the design of an aircraft or aircraft part meets the safety standards imposed by Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) regulations. Id. at 684, 686. Since the subject engine was granted a type certificate, the standard of care had been satisfied as a matter of law. Id. at 686. Critical to the District Court’s decision was its finding that it must apply some federal standard of care pursuant to Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc., 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999). Id. at 686.

Abdullah involved a turbulent flight wherein passengers were seriously injured. 181 F.3d at 365. The passengers sued, alleging negligence on the part of the pilot and flight attendants for not taking reasonable steps to avoid the turbulence and for failing to give them adequate warnings about the turbulence. Id. The Third Circuit held that Congress, in enacting the Federal Aviation Act and related regulations, intended to preempt state regulation of aviation safety, although it did not preempt remedies available under state law. Id. at 367-68. As such, “federal law establishes the applicable standards of care in the field of air safety.” Id. at 367.

Seventeen years later, the Third Circuit has now clarified that “products liability claims are not subject to the same catch-all standard of care that motivated our field preemption decision in Abdullah…” Sikkelee, 822 F.3d at 689. The Court found that neither the Federal Aviation Act, nor FAA regulations, were intended to create federal standards of care for manufacturing and design defect claims. Id. at 695. Therefore, “state tort suits using state standards of care may proceed subject only to traditional conflict preemption principles.” Id.

This decision is significant because it makes clear that, within the Third Circuit, manufacturers may be found liable for design defects under state products liability law. Airline operators and manufacturers should be aware that obtaining a certificate from the FAA attesting to the airline’s fitness for flight will not be sufficient to escape liability for manufacturing and design defects.

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