In Watson v. Air Methods Corp., No. 15-1900 (8th Cir. en banc, Aug. 31, 2017), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its own precedent and held that a former employee may bring a state law wrongful discharge claim against an “air carrier,” notwithstanding the pre-emption provision contained in the Airline Deregulation Act (“ADA”).

Plaintiff in Watson was an in-flight air medic employed by defendant. Over the course of his career, he made a number of complaints to his employer, alleging violations of various federal aviation safety regulations, including: a pilot making cell-phone videos during flight; members of a medical crew text messaging during critical phases of flight; a pilot attempting to take off with frost and ice on the aircraft; and another pilot making unnecessary “run-on landings.” After he was fired by the air carrier, Plaintiff claimed he was dismissed in retaliation for making these complaints, and filed suit in Missouri state court for the common-law tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

The air carrier removed the case to federal court and then moved to dismiss the state law claim based on the pre-emption provision of the ADA. The district court, relying on the Eighth Circuit’s decision in Botz v. Omni Air International, 286 F.3d 488 (8th Cir. 2002), dismissed plaintiff’s wrongful discharge claim. Plaintiff appealed, and a Court of Appeals panel upheld the district court. Plaintiff then sought en banc review, by the full Court. Somewhat surprisingly, the full court overturned its own decision in Botz and held that a state law claim for wrongful discharge was not preempted by the ADA, despite the existence of a federal whistleblower protection scheme for airline employees.

Defendant argued that if plaintiff’s claims were not pre-empted by the ADA, then state courts would need to adjudicate the meaning of the federal regulations, thus creating a patchwork of differing regulatory standards for air carriers to deal with. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, noting that state courts do not have federal regulatory enforcement power, that not all claims related to air “safety” are preempted by the ADA anyway (e.g. personal injury claims), and that the federal aviation whistleblower protection program acted in conjunction with state whistleblower claims, rather than superseding such claims. The Eighth Circuit stated that the Third, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits had reached the same conclusion.

As a result of the holding in Watson, “air carriers” (as defined in the ADA) doing business in the Eighth Circuit may now have to defend whistleblower-style claims from ex-employees, on both state and federal fronts.