HIGHLIGHTS:

  • 49 U.S.C. §44112(b) provides that an owner, lessor, or secured party does not have liability for an aircraft accident when not in actual possession or control of the aircraft.
  • The broad preemptive scope of the statute extends to claims by persons on board the accident aircraft.

The District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands1 has reaffirmed the proposition that an aircraft lessor is shielded from liability for injuries to persons on board an accident aircraft when the lessor is not in possession or control of the aircraft.2 The litigation arose out of a November 2012 crash of a small plane carrying five tourists from Saipan to Tinian. After takeoff, the pilot heard sounds coming from the engine and landed safely on Saipan. When the pilot took off again, allegedly over the objection of the passengers, the plane lost power in midair and crashed into trees north of the runway. The plane burst into flames. One passenger died; the others were injured.

The plaintiffs sued the operator, Star Marianas Air, Inc. (SMA); the charterer, Marianas Air Transfer, Inc. (MAT); and the maintenance company, Tinian Transportation Management Solutions, Inc. (TTMS) for fraud, wrongful death, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The defendants moved to dismiss the fraud claim as to all the defendants and to dismiss the negligence claims as to MAT and TTMS.

The court quickly dispensed with the fraud claim on the basis that the complaint asserted only that the defendants misrepresented important facts about the safety of their air operations by advertising themselves as a legitimate commercial carrier while having full knowledge of prior accidents. The court noted that the plaintiffs did not point to a specific false statement, or a statement made false by material omission. The court then turned to the negligence claims. MAT and TTMS argued that the complaint did not allege that either entity committed any negligent act or omission, and that MAT was immune from liability under 49 U.S.C. §44112(b) because it was a lessor not in actual possession or control of the aircraft.

The Federal Statute

The federal statute, 49 U.S.C. §44112(b), provides that an owner, lessor, or secured party does not have liability for an aircraft accident when not in actual possession or control of the aircraft:

Liability.-- A lessor, owner, or secured party is liable for personal injury, death, or property loss or damage on land or water only when a civil aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller is in the actual possession or control of the lessor, owner, or secured party, and the personal injury, death, or property less or damage occurs because of --

(1) the aircraft, engine, or propeller; or

(2) the flight of, or an object falling from, the aircraft, engine, or propeller.

A number of courts have held, or suggested in dicta, that this statute provides immunity to owners, lessors and secured parties for state law claims arising out of injuries to persons, regardless of whether or not they are on board the accident aircraft.3 Courts in a minority of jurisdictions,4 however, have taken a more limited view as to the preemptive effect of the statute depending on whether the injured party was on the ground or a passenger on board the aircraft. Most notably, in Vreeland v. Ferrer, the Florida Supreme Court found that the “limitation on liability would apply only to individuals and property that are underneath the aircraft during its flight, ascent, or descent.” But Vreeland’s requirement that the injured person be underneath the aircraft is not found in the express language of the statute, and is undermined by the legislative history of the statute that demonstrates that its purpose was to protect a party not in possession or control of the aircraft from liability for damages.

Court Makes No Distinction for Persons on Board Accident Aircraft

In line with the majority of cases, the court made no distinction as to the location of the injured persons. In determining the preemptive effect of the federal statute over the negligence claims, the court referenced the allegations in the complaint:

[T]o the extent that the complaint suggests that MAT leased the aircraft in this case to SMA, federal law preempts the negligence claim against MAT. Here, the complaint asserts that MAT is the parent company of SMA and that it is “in the business of leasing and chartering airplanes, including the aircraft in question.” Those statements suggest that MAT leased the aircraft to SMA, and is therefore protected from suit by section 44112(b).

The court noted that the plaintiffs’ opposition to the motion asserted that the language of the complaint actually suggested that MAT was the lessee of the aircraft – not the lessor – and that therefore the federal statute does not apply. As argued in the defendants’ reply memorandum, there was no allegation in the complaint that MAT was a lessee of the aircraft and a simple inquiry would conclude that MAT was a lessor and thus shielded by the preemptive effect of the statute. The court agreed with the defendants and found the plaintiffs’ assertion “an unlikely reading,” but granted leave to file an amended complaint.5

No Liability If Lessor Not in Actual Possession or Control

Most claims from aviation accidents are adjudicated without involving remote owners, lessors and secured parties. But claims seeking to impose liability on such entities remain a possibility as a result of vague pleadings of “negligence” or by invoking state vicarious liability laws, combined with the uncertainty created by preemption limitations by decisions such as Vreeland. The court’s decision reinforces that the preemptive scope of the statute is very broad, subject only to the express limitation set forth therein, that being the phrase “unless such aircraft is in the actual possession or control of such person.”