The doctrine of implied federal preemption, which is rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, comes in two general forms – conflict preemption and field preemption.  Conflict preemption, the less potent of the two, arises when a particular state law makes compliance with a particular federal law impossible.  Field preemption is of a more sweeping variety.  If Congress intended to preempt the entire field of a particular subject matter, then state law must give way, regardless of whether a conflict exists.  Field preemption can be one of the most potent tools in a defense attorney’s arsenal.

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit took a decisive step in removing this arrow from the quiver those who practice in the field of aviation products liability defense.  In Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corporation, No. 14-4913, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7015 (3rd Cir. April 19, 2016), the court comprehensively ruled that issuance of a type certificate by the Federal Aviation Administration (‘FAA”), which essentially provides federal governmental confirmation that an aviation product meets FAA design standards, does not preempt the field when a plaintiff asserts a state law products liability claim alleging that the aviation product was defectively designed or manufactured.

Plaintiff/appellant in Sikkelee was the widow of a man who died in an airplane crash.  Her wrongful death petition alleged that there was a defect in the aircraft’s carburetor which allowed for fuel leaks, and further asserted state law product liability claims premised upon the alleged defects in design and/or manufacture of the carburetor.  The carburetor had been type-certificated by the FAA prior to its installation in 2004.  Defendant/appellee, the manufacturer of the engine to which the carburetor was attached, moved for summary judgment on the grounds that issuance of the type certificate preempted plaintiff’s state law product liability claims.  According to defendant, the fact that Congress provided the FAA with broad and sweeping powers to regulate all aspects of air safety meant that the entire field of air safety had been preempted by federal law.  The District Court granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor, apparently based upon the Third Circuit’s decision inAbdullah v. American Airlines, 181 F.3d 363 (3rd Cir. 1999).

As should be apparent already, the Third Circuit reversed the District Court’s summary judgment and remanded the action.  In reaching its conclusion that field preemption was not applicable, the Third Circuit considered and rejected a whole host of bases on which field preemption could be premised.

First, the court scuppered appellee’s argument that Abdullah, supra, provided a platform for field preemption.  The court held that the broad pronouncement in Abdullah that the Federal Aviation Act “preempted the field of aviation safety” actually referred only to “in-air operations,” and did not apply to the manufacture and design of aircraft.  Sikkelee, 2016 U.S. App. Lexis 7015, at *16-20.

Next, the court looked to indicia of congressional intent, specifically the Federal Aviation Act, the Federal Aviation Regulations (“FARs”) and the statute of repose found in the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 (“GARA”).  In rather cursory fashion, the court found that the Federal Aviation Act provided no support for field preemption, because it sets forth only “minimum standards” and provides that its remedies are “in addition to any other remedies provided by law.”  Id. at *25-27 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 44701 and 49 U.S.C. § 40120).  Likewise, the court found that the FARs do not support field preemption because they are not sufficiently comprehensive with respect to the design and manufacture of aircraft.  Id. at *28-36.  The court went on to note the minute detail with which some aspects of aircraft manufacture and design are regulated, which may on first blush seem inconsistent with its position regarding the non-comprehensiveness of the FARs, but logically can be reconciled.  Id. at *32 (citing 14 CFR 33.69).  The court’s view of GARA was more straightforward and thus more compelling.  If Congress had intended to preempt the field of aircraft design and manufacture, asked the court, why would it have enacted a statute of repose for state law causes of action, thereby implicitly recognizing that state law causes of action based upon state law standards of care are viable?  According to the Third Circuit, Congress would not have done so, as it would have rendered GARA superfluous.  Id. at *37-43.

Next, the court examined United States Supreme Court preemption jurisprudence generally, in addition to various other Circuit Court decisions specifically addressing the issue of whether state law causes of action for defective manufacture/design of aviation products are subject to field preemption.  Regarding the former, the Third Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has been reluctant to extend the doctrine of field preemption in the transportation context.  Id. at *50-51.  As to the latter, the court noted that various other federal circuits have either wholly refused to find that the entire field of aviation safety is preempted, have carved product liability claims out from preemption as applied to other aspects of aviation safety, or, at the very least, have indicated a willingness to approach preemption of aviation safety issues on an area by area basis.  Id. at *61-67.

Finally, the court considered the appellee’s argument that aircraft manufacturers would be exposed to tremendous potential liability and unpredictable, non-uniform standards without the protection afforded by field preemption.  The court dismissed these concerns, expressing that the federal statutory and regulatory regime had struck an adequate balance between protecting air commerce and promoting safety.  Id. at *67-71.

While the defeat of appellant’s field preemption argument was thorough and complete by any measure, the court did note that the doctrine of conflict preemption is alive and well with respect to product liability claims.  Id. at *56-57.  Thus, where “a manufacturer’s compliance with both the type certificate and a state law standard of care is a physical impossibility,” state law product liability claims may be conflict preempted.  Id., citing Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132 (1963).  The court did not provide any examples of the requisite “physical impossibility” that would invoke conflict preemption, however.

From an absolute standpoint, the Sikkelee decision does not wholly foreclose field preemption arguments in aviation products liability cases, at least in circuits that have not yet considered the issue.  However, Sikkelee presents a huge practical hurdle to any such argument, given the thoroughness with which the Third Circuit put it to the sword.  Going forward, aviation product manufacturers should continue to expect exposure to state law products liability claims, save for those elusive cases where conflict preemption arises when a “physical impossibility” prevents compliance with both the type certificate and state law standards of care.