The Washington Supreme Court recently held that the Federal Aviation Act (FAA) and its regulations relating to aircraft engine fuel systems do not impliedly preempt state law product liability actions. In Estate of Becker v. AVCO Corp.1, the state's highest court reversed the intermediate appeals court by concluding that the cited regulations "were not designed to supplant state standards of care, but rather "set a baseline requirement for manufacturers." Specifically, the court held that the regulations serve as a "floor for engine design standards, not a ceiling limiting state tort remedies." Only where the regulations are comprehensive or sufficiently pervasive would they potentially preempt state tort claims.

Background

In Becker, a single propeller aircraft crashed causing the deaths of the pilot and two passengers. The estate of one passenger brought a lawsuit against Forward Technologies Inc. (FTI) and other defendants, claiming that the aircraft's carburetor float malfunctioned and caused the engine to flood and stall. The estate argued that FTI, the assembler of the carburetor float, imperfectly welded the plastic components used to seal the float.

FTI moved for summary judgment arguing that pervasive FAA regulations relating to aircraft engine fuel systems preempted the state tort claims and, alternatively, that the estate could only bring the product liability claims under Washington's tort reform and product liability laws. The trial court granted the motion on federal preemption grounds. Reconsideration was denied and an appeal was filed.

Court of Appeals Affirms Finding of Preemption

The Washington Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's dismissal of FTI, finding that federal law pervasively regulated the engine fuel system and its component parts, including the carburetor's delivery of air and fuel to the engine, and therefore precluded the application of a state law standard of care.2 The fact that there were no specific regulations directed to carburetor floats was "of no consequence" because "the specific area at issue" for purposes of implied preemption was the engine's fuel system.3

Reversal and Reliance on Third and Ninth Circuit Opinions

On petition for review, the Washington Supreme Court reversed and held that the cited regulations do not pervasively regulate the area of an engine fuel system. Rather, the regulations establish minimum standards of care and do not preempt Washington state product liability law. In particular, the regulations cited by defendant all focused on "performance and safety standards," and "do not attempt to regulate aircraft manufacture and design in and of itself."4

In reaching its decision, the court relied on holdings from the Third and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. In Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp.,5 a case with facts similar to those in Becker, the Third Circuit held that the FAA was not pervasive enough to preempt state product liability law against a federally-certified engine manufacturer. The Third Circuit found that the intent of the FAA was not to "govern the manufacture and design of aircraft per se or to establish a general standard of care."6 The Ninth Circuit in Martin v. Midwest Express Holdings, Inc.7 also explained that a regulation must not only be pervasive but also comprehensively regulate an area of law to have preemptive effect.

The court further found that the history of the FAA shows that Congress did not intend the statute and its regulations to preempt state product liability laws. In 1989 and 1993, for example, Congress rejected proposed legislation that would have preempted all state tort liability claims for general aviation accidents. Additionally, in the passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) of 1994, Congress created a statute of repose expressly limiting aircraft manufacturers' state tort liability. Such a "targeted and explicit preemption" statute reflected congressional reluctance to federally preempt state product liability laws.