In Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., 45 F.Supp.3d 431 (M.D. Pa. 2014), a wrongful death suit arising from the crash of a Cessna 172 claiming defects in the carburetor of its Lycoming engine and the related manuals and instructions, the plaintiff alleged that Lycoming violated various design requirements for the engine type certificate, and failed to report failures, malfunctions or defects as required by the Federal Air Regulations. The District Court applied Abdullah v. American Airlines, 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999), which held that the Federal Aviation Act preempts the entire field of aviation safety and that federal standards govern the safe operation of aircraft. It dismissed all of Sikkelee’s claims except those based on the alleged reporting failures, concluding that the design-related claims were preempted because the issuance of a type certificate for the engine by the Federal Aviation Administration “denotes the Administrator’s finding that the engine met all applicable requirements.”

Sikkelee and the defendants appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. After briefing and oral argument, the Court of Appeals directed the FAA to file an amicus brief on preemption of tort claims based on alleged defective design or manufacturing. The FAA’s brief argued that where it has “expressly approved the specific design aspect that the plaintiff challenges,” any claim that the design should have been different is preempted, but that where the FAA “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.”[1]

On April 19, 2016 the Third Circuit ruled, holding that neither the Federal Aviation Act nor the issuance of a type certificate per se preempts all aircraft design and manufacturing claims, and that aircraft products liability cases may proceed using a state standard of care. The Court of Appeals distinguished Abdullah on the ground that that the preempted field of aviation safety was limited to in-air operations, and reversed the District Court summary judgment for Lycoming and the other defendants, holding, “absent clear evidence that Congress intended the mere issuance of a type certificate to foreclose all design defect claims, state tort suits using state standards of care may proceed subject only to traditional conflict preemption principles.” Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., ___F.3d.___, 2016 WL 1567236 (3d. Cir. 2016).

The Third Circuit rejected the proposition that 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,” saying, “Congress has not created a federal standard of care for persons injured by defective airplanes; and the type certification process cannot as a categorical matter displace the need for compliance in this context with state standards of care.” However, it held that there may be cases where a manufacturer’s compliance with both the type certificate and a state law standard of care “is a physical impossibility,” or would pose an obstacle to Congress’s purposes and objectives. “In such cases,” it states, “the state law claim would be conflict preempted.” It found no need to “demarcate the boundaries of those tort suits that will be preempted as a result of a conflict between state law and a given type certificate,” leaving such issues for the District Court to consider on remand.

Sikkelee thus limits preemption of aircraft design defect claims to a narrow class in which a manufacturer’s compliance with both the type certificate and a state law standard of care “is a physical impossibility” or would conflict with congressional purposes and objectives. It gives no guidance as to what claims would fail this test, but states that the result is consistent with holdings in other circuits that the entire field of aviation safety is preempted.

It remains to be seen whether any defendants in Sikkelee will petition the Supreme Court for certiorari. And while the appeal was pending, the Washington State Court of Appeals cited the Sikkelee District Court opinion in holding that federal regulations “pervasively regulate an airplane’s fuel system, including its carburetor and component parts,” and that implied field preemption precludes applying a state law standard to the aircraft design defect claims. Estate of Becker v. Forward Technology Industries, Inc., 192 Wash.App. 65, 365 P.3d 1273 (2016).

The nature and extent of federal preemption of aviation related design defect claims remains an evolving issue of interest to the aviation industry.