In a departure from a string of cases supporting field preemption of state-law aviation product liability claims under certain circumstances by the Federal Aviation Act (FAAct), the Third Circuit recently held that the FAAct does not categorically preempt such claims. Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., et al. Case No. 14-4193. In doing so, the court significantly limited its own groundbreaking ruling in Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc., 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999), in which it held that “the entire field of aviation safety is federally preempted.”[1] As it backpedaled, the court explained that Abdullah applied only to operating an aircraft—not to the aircraft’s design or manufacture.

Background

Sikkelee arises out of the 2005 crash of a Cessna 172N shortly after takeoff in North Carolina. The pilot died as a result of injuries and burns suffered in the crash. The pilot’s wife filed a wrongful death and survival action in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, asserting state-law product liability claims for design defect (under both negligence and strict liability theories) and failure to warn. She alleges that the aircraft crashed as a result of a defect in the plane’s Lycoming O-320-D2C engine, which was manufactured in 1969, installed new on the Cessna 172N in 1998, and overhauled and installed with a new carburetor in 2004. Specifically, the plaintiff alleges that the aircraft lost power and crashed due to a malfunction or defect in the carburetor.

The District Court Grants Summary Judgment

In 2010, the district court granted Lycoming’s motion for judgment on the pleadings based on preemption, holding that the state-law claims were preempted under Abdullah. The plaintiff then filed an amended complaint in which she incorporated federal standards of care into her state-law claims. Lycoming later moved for summary judgment on preemption grounds. And again the court granted the motion. The ruling revolved around the engine’s FAA-issued type certificate, which, according to the court, established both the (federal) standard of care for the design defect claims and that the standard of care was satisfied as a matter of law. (The court denied summary judgment on the failure-to-warn claims.)

In reaching this conclusion, the district court first decided that neither the FAAct nor the related FAA regulations were intended to establish federal standards of care for design defect and manufacturing claims. The court concluded that, because these sources do not supply a federal standard of care, the issuance of an FAA type certificate must both create and meet that standard.

The Third Circuit Reverses

The Third Circuit disagreed and reversed. The court began its opinion by emphasizing the strong presumption against preemption in areas traditionally occupied by state laws. The court next described the limited scope of Abdullah, noting that the cases it relied on in deciding Abdullah all related to an air carrier’s “in-air operations” concerning aviation safety, and that none of these cases concerned design or manufacture of an aircraft.

After limiting the precedent established in Abdullah, the court next determined that Congress did not intend for the FAAct to preempt product liability claims. The court explained that (1) the FAAct does not purport to govern the manufacture and design of aircraft; (2) the standards required for the issuance of type certificates do not provide a comprehensive system of rules or regulations to promote in-flight safety; and (3) the FAAct does not supply a comprehensive standard of care. In sum, the court determined that the mere issuance of a type certificate should not foreclose all design defect claims, and that state tort suits may proceed unless they are preempted by federal law under traditional conflict-preemption principles.

The FAA’s Position

At the Third Circuit’s request, the FAA submitted a letter brief addressing (1) the scope of field preemption, (2) federal standards of care (if any) for design defect claims, and (3) the type certificate’s role in determining whether the standard of care was met. As to the first two issues, the FAA contended that the FAAct and its implementing regulations occupy the field of design safety so pervasively that, consistent with Abdullah, a federal standard of care should apply to claims that are not preempted by conflict preemption. The Third Circuit squarely rejected this argument. As to the third issue, however, the Third Circuit agreed with the FAA’s view that type certification is relevant only to a conflict-preemption analysis.

Other Circuit Court Precedent

The Third Circuit recognized that other circuit courts have held that the FAAct preempts the field of aviation safety. The court explained, however, that the scope of those rulings has been “carefully circumscribed.” For instance, some circuits (including the Ninth Circuit, as we have discussed here, here and here) have held that the scope of preemption in the field of aviation safety depends on the pervasiveness of the regulations in a particular area; the more “pervasive” the regulations, the more likely the field is preempted. But the Third Circuit did not make clear how this “circumscribed” approach is consistent with its holding in Sikkelee. Rather than acknowledge this tension, the Third Circuit strained to reconcile all of the cases by stating that “the Courts of Appeals have held that aviation products liability claims are not preempted, although they have taken a variety of different approaches to reach that result.” The court’s effort to portray these other cases as affirmatively holding that product liability claims are not preempted is less than convincing.

Conclusion

In sum, the Third Circuit held that “[t]he field of aviation safety we identified as preempted in Abdullah does not include product manufacture and design, which continues to be governed by state tort law, subject to traditional conflict preemption principles.” The court also made clear that the issuance of an FAA type certificate neither sets nor satisfies the standard of care in such cases.

Although this holding purports to be consistent with Abdullah and the rulings of other circuits on FAAct preemption, it is by no means a logical extension of those cases. Rather, it is a clear sign that the Third Circuit—one of the leading voices when it comes to FAAct preemption—wanted to pull the throttle back on the preemption defense in aviation product liability cases. Sikkelee therefore shows that the viability of an FAAct preemption defense may depend heavily on the circuit in which the case is filed.

The success of the defense may also depend on whether the defendant points to an FAA type certificate as establishing or satisfying the standard of care. As the Sikkelee court warned, allowing this argument to prevail would mean “that the mere issuance of a type certificate exempts designers and manufacturers of defective airplanes from the bulk of liability for both individual and large-scale air catastrophes”—a result few courts would accept. Accordingly, aviation product liability defendants would be wise to focus on specific Federal Aviation Regulations related to the design feature at issue, rather than on the issuance of a type certificate, as the basis for a FAAct preemption defense.