The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is considering whether, and if so, to what extent the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. §§ 40101et seq., preempts tort claims for alleged defective aircraft design or manufacture. It has asked the Federal Aviation Agency to weigh in on these questions.  The answers are important for the aviation industry.

In Abdullah v. American Airlines, 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999), the Third Circuit held that the Act preempts the entire field of aviation safety, and that federal standards govern the safe operation of aircraft, but that plaintiffs who are injured during flight as a result of the violation of federal air safety operational standards may have remedy in state tort law. Abdullah, 181 F.3d 363, 376. Abdullah thus allows a state law cause of action for alleged violation of federally-created aviation operational standards.

In Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., 45 F.Supp.3d 431 (M.D. Pa. 2014) a District Court applied Abdullah to a wrongful death suit arising from the crash of a Cessna 172 claiming defects in its Lycoming engine and components and the related manuals and instructions.  The plaintiff alleges that Lycoming violated various design-related requirements for the engine type certificate, and failed to report failures, malfunctions or defects as required by the regulations. The District Court, applying Abdullah, held that the design-related claims were preempted because the FAA’s issuance of a type certificate for the engine “denotes the Administrator’s finding that the engine met all applicable requirements,” 43 F.Supp.3d 431, 452.

In the Sikkelee appeal the Third Circuit directed the FAA to answer three questions:

  1. Does field preemption under the Act include tort claims based on alleged defective design or manufacturing?
  2. If such claims fall within the preempted field, may they proceed using a federal standard of care?
  3. What weight should be accorded to the issuance of a type certificate in determining if the relevant federal standard has been met?

The FAA’s response to the first two questions is yes. As to the third, the FAA says that where it has “expressly approved the specific design aspect that the plaintiff challenges,” any claim that the design should have been different should be preempted. However, “where the FAA has left a particular design choice to a manufacturer’s discretion, and no other conflict exists, the type certificate does not preempt a design defect claim applying federal standards.” According to the FAA, Congress has implicitly preempted the entire field of the substantive standards of care in all aspects of aviation, but has not preempted the entire field of tort law as it pertains to aviation. The FAA contends that only where compliance with both the type certificate and the claims made in the suit is “a physical impossibility,” or the claim is an obstacle to the Congressional purpose, will issuance of a type certificate preempt a state tort suit claiming a design defect.

The FAA gives no guidance concerning where it has “expressly approved the specific design aspect that the plaintiff challenges” versus leaving the design choice to the manufacturer’s discretion.  A claimant could argue that the FAA would have accepted a different and allegedly “safer” design than the one it actually authorized, while a defendant could assert that that the FAA expressly approved its specific design because it could not be changed without the FAA’s permission, and the claim is therefore preempted.   Indeed, the parties in Sikkelee make such arguments to the Court of Appeals.

The District Court held that “the natural interpretation of the regulatory scheme” precludes allowing a civil jury to find that that an FAA-approved design was defective. How the Third Circuit rules will be of much interest to the aircraft industry.