Court Holds that State Law False Arrest/Imprisonment Claims against Airline Are Not Preempted by Federal Aviation Safety Law

Prior to the arrival in Las Vegas of a cross-country JetBlue flight, the airline alerted the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department ("LVMPD") that a passenger "was interfering with flight safety, was possibly intoxicated, was taking photos of sensitive areas, and was not following orders from the flight crew." Upon the flight's arrival, LVMPD officers boarded the aircraft at the gate and removed the passenger. The passenger claimed that she was handcuffed by the police (the LVMPD officers stated otherwise) and that "a flight attendant falsely reported her behavior, and sought to prevent here from posting an embarrassing video of the attendant's interaction with passengers on YouTube."

The passenger sued JetBlue, the LVMPD and two of its officers, asserting federal civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for unconstitutional arrest/excessive force, municipal liability, and state law claims for civil conspiracy, false arrest, false imprisonment and negligence. The federal district court in Nevada awarded summary judgment to JetBlue, the LVMPD and its officers, and the plaintiff appealed.

The Ninth Circuit found that the district court properly granted summary judgment to the LVMPD and its officers. The officers had qualified immunity from the unconstitutional arrest claim because their conduct did not violate any "clearly established law." The officers reasonably believed they had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff or remove her from the aircraft based upon the alert from JetBlue. Nevada's discretionary immunity statute protected the officers against the state law false arrest, false imprisonment and negligence claims, and there was insufficient evidence as to the remaining claims against them.

With respect to JetBlue, the Ninth Circuit held that the airline was entitled to summary judgment as to plaintiff's claim that the airline violated her federal civil rights. "State action" is a prerequisite and JetBlue was not a "joint state actor" with the police officers—JetBlue's alert to the LVMPD and the fact that the flight crew pointed the plaintiff out to the officers did not constitute "joint state action." However, the court held that the district court should not have dismissed the false imprisonment and false arrest claims against the airline because there were issues of fact that should be submitted to a jury/finder of fact. Specifically, there were factual questions as to whether the airline "instigated or effected an unlawful arrest", which can be a basis for false arrest/imprisonment claims under Nevada law.

Disagreeing with the district court, the Ninth Circuit also found that the plaintiff's false arrest/imprisonment claims against the airline were not preempted by federal law. Although the Federal Aviation Act and the Federal Aviation regulations generally occupy the field of aviation safety, the federal regulations that make it illegal to interfere with the flight crew or give the pilot discretion in responding to emergencies "do not amount to 'pervasive' regulations of passenger management with respect to [the plaintiff's] claimed intentional torts alleging injury from the misuse of authority." Parver v. JetBlue Airlines Corp., 2016 WL 2343203 (9th Cir. May 4, 2016).