On April 19, 2016, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion on the issue of federal preemption in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp. The sixty-one page opinion effectively narrowed the scope of federal preemption and held that aviation product liability claims are to be controlled by state tort law standards of care as opposed to federal standards of care. This opinion could expose aviation product manufacturers to potential liability, as well as the unpredictability of non-uniform standards across the states.

Sikkelee involved an airplane crash in July 2005, where the pilot David Sikkelee crashed his Cessna 172N aircraft shortly after taking off from the Transylvania County Airport in Brevard, North Carolina. Tragically, Mr. Sikkelee died as a result of serious injuries and burns suffered in the crash. Plaintiff Jill Sikkelee, the wife of David Sikkelee, alleged that the aircraft lost power and crashed as a result of a malfunction in the engine’s carburetor, which is designed to regulate the proper mixture of fuel and air that enters the engine’s cylinders.

As a result, Ms. Sikkelee filed suit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania in 2007 against seventeen defendants, asserting state law claims of strict liability, breach of warranty, negligence, misrepresentation, and concert of action. In 2010 the District Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment holding that plaintiff’s state law claims, based on state law standards of care were preempted by federal standards of care. Plaintiff subsequently filed an amended complaint, continuing to assert state law claims, but also alleging numerous violations of FAA regulations.

In response, the defendants filed a summary judgment motion arguing that the engine and its components, including the carburetor were approved by the FAA when it issued a Type Certificate and thus complied with the pertinent FAA regulations. The District Court agreed and granted summary judgment reasoning that when the FAA issues a type certificate for the engine it determines that the federal standard of care has been satisfied as a matter of law. The case was certified for immediate appeal.

Early in its opinion, the Third Circuit limited the application of its seminal decision in Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc. In Abdullah, a case involving in-flight seatbelt use and warnings, the Third Circuit held that state law claims were preempted because the Federal Aviation Act and federal regulations “establish[ed] complete and thorough safety standards for interstate and international air transportation and these standards are not subject to supplementation by, or variation among, jurisdictions.”

In contrast, the Third Circuit in Sikkelee found that the issuance of a type certificate approving the design and manufacture of aviation products was a baseline FAA requirement and not a “comprehensive system of rules and regulations” as the Court determined in Abdullah. The Court further held that there was no clear evidence Congress intended the issuance of a type certificate to preempt all state law design defect claims. It’s also notable that the Court rejected the position taken by the FAA in its amici brief arguing that issuance of a type certificate provides federal standards of care and should thus preempt state law tort claims.

The Court, however did not completely foreclose the possibility of preemption in aviation products liability claims. Rather the Court held that if preemption is to be found for a particular aviation product it must be under a conflict preemption scheme where the product area in question is pervasively regulated, rather than a broader field preemption scheme which seeks to categorically preempt the entire field of aviation manufacturing. The Court reasoned that at the point where state laws interferes with compliance with federal regulations it should deemed to be conflict preempted.

With this opinion less than a month old, it’s too early to know what long term impacts this decision will have on the field of aviation manufacturing. The decision is likely to have national implications given the rejection of the FAA amici brief and the fact that courts from other jurisdictions have relied to some extent on Abdullah. Given the Court’s distinguishing of Abdullah, aviation manufacturers will likely find themselves subject to non-uniform state tort standards as they litigate cases across the country.