Last week, in the Estate of Virgil Becker v. Forward Technology Industries, Inc., a Washington appellate court upheld a lower court decision affirming the dismissal of claims against an aircraft component manufacturer on grounds of federal preemption.  This decision represents a significant victory for aviation manufacturers in Washington and can provide insight for aviation manufacturers in other states who end up embroiled in litigation.

The underlying case involved a tragic July 2008 airplane crash in the Cascade Mountains north of Seattle, Washington in which the pilot and two passengers perished.  As a result of the crash, the plaintiff estates filed suit in Washington state court against multiple defendants including the engine manufacturer AVCO, the carburetor manufacturer Precision Airmotive, as well as several of Precision’s carburetor component suppliers.  One of Precision Airmotive’s suppliers, Forward Technology Industries, Inc. (FTI), provided assembly and limited testing services for one of the carburetor components. Plaintiffs alleged that FTI improperly performed its assembly and testing on the subject carburetor component which led to an alleged failure of the aircraft engine and resulting crash.

The appellant in this case, the Estate of Becker, pled state law causes of action against FTI including strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty. After nearly two years of litigation FTI moved for summary judgment arguing that federal aviation law preempts the state law standards of care for all of the Becker Estate’s claims, and that the Becker Estate failed to allege any violations of those federal standards. The trial court agreed and granted FTI summary judgment and dismissed all of the Becker Estate’s claims against it, concluding that “federal aviation law and concomitant federal regulations preempt state law standards of care.”  Becker then sought to file an amended complaint against FTI, which the court denied.

After settling the case with the remaining defendants, the Becker Estate appealed the decision of the trial court dismissing FTI.  On appeal the Becker Estate argued that unlike the engine manufacturer, AVCO and the carburetor manufacturer, Precision Airmotive both of which are certified by the FAA and subject to significant federal regulations and standards of care, FTI, as an uncertified manufacturer of carburetor subcomponents, was not subject to these federal standards, and thus the state standards of care should not be federally preempted.

The court of appeals rejected this argument and held that because the FAA had pervasively regulated the area of aircraft fuel systems, including carburetors and their subcomponents, all state law causes of action were preempted. The court did not find that FTI’s status as a non-FAA certified manufacturer made a difference in the applicability of those federal standards of care, and ultimately upheld the lower court’s summary judgment dismissal.  While this represents an obvious victory for FTI, this case also provides clarity for a number of aviation component manufacturers as to the standards of care that they will be held to.