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Sikkelee and Aviation Product Liability Claims

Although large commercial airline crashes in the U.S. are rare, there are dangers still lurking in the skies. Private and chartered corporate airplanes, which face less governmental oversight, have accounted for five times the number of fatal aviation accidents since 2000. Many of these have been attributed to pilot error, but such findings can be deceiving as one investigation revealed several crashes blamed on pilot error which were actually the result of aircraft defects.

Accidents involving aircraft defects can give rise to aviation product liability claims, as happened after a 2005 crash killing David Sikkelee. He and his brother had just taken off from a county airport in North Carolina when his Cessna lost power, crashed into the ground and erupted in flames. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found anomalies with the carburetor which regulates the engine's air-gas ratio and speed, and which had just been replaced the year before. While addressing aviation product liability, the wrongful death case filed by Sikkelee's widow has also led to significant changes in federal preemption law in the Third Circuit.

What Is Preemption and Why Does It Matter?

In situations where federal and state law could both apply to an issue, the preemption doctrine states that federal law prevails whenever:

  1. Congress expressly provided for federal law to preempt state law;
  2. The state law directly conflicts with federal law or interferes with federal objectives (also known as "conflict" preemption); or
  3. Federal law so thoroughly occupies a field of law (like immigration), that it's reasonable to assume that Congress intended to preempt state law in that field (also known as "field" or "implied" preemption).

The ultimate outcome in a case can hinge on preemption as federal and state laws sometimes produce different results. For example, applying a more restrictive federal statute of limitations could lead to dismissal of a case that might proceed under state law.

Preemption and the Standard of Care Dispute in Sikkelee

The lawsuit after Sikkelee's crash was filed in Pennsylvania against 17 defendants and asserted various state law claims related to a carburetor malfunction or defect, including:

  • Strict liability;
  • Breach of warranty;
  • Negligence;
  • Misrepresentation; and
  • Concert of action.

Many of these claims were initially premised on standards of care under state law instead of federal law. This raised the preemption issue because in 1999 the Third Circuit held in Abdullah that field preemption applied to air safety and therefore "federal law establishes the applicable standards of care in the field of air safety [...] thus preempting the entire field from state and territorial regulation."

The problem, for Sikkelee's family, was that the defendants would have likely prevailed under the federal standards of care since the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of the engine had received a Type Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This certificate indicates that a product is properly designed and manufactured and meets minimum standards, in effect a green light from the FAA. However, under state law, a judge or jury could look to other factors to establish a standard of care, including:

  • Local industry design standards;
  • Consumer expectations for the probability and seriousness of harm; and
  • Risk/utility balancing.

Shrinking the Field

In deciding Sikkelee, the court acknowledged its prior finding of field preemption for air safety, but still held that federal preemption did not apply in this case. To make this finding it limited the preempted field of air safety to "in-air operations" and determined that aviation product liability fell outside the field as it applied to design defects in the production phase of an aircraft before it takes flight.

The court also noted that the federal regulations for Type Certificates aren't as comprehensive as federal rules applying to in-flight standards, and cited authorities indicating that Congress didn't intend to preempt aviation products liability claims.

What Does This Mean for Aviation Product Liability Cases?

The Sikkelee holding has important implications for cases going forward. First, it shows that success in aviation product liability cases may depend on the Circuit in which the case is filed as other jurisdictions could uphold preemption and apply the federal standard of care. This case also shows that an OEM Type Certificate issued by the FAA may not necessarily set a standard of care or prove compliance with a standard of care in aviation product liability cases.

Free Initial Evaluation of Your Aviation Product Liability Case

When it comes to aviation product liability cases, the most basic decisions, like where to file the case, could have significant consequences. In this complex area of the law, it's critical to have an experienced attorney at your side to help you navigate the judicial waters. Get help today by arranging a free initial evaluation of your case with an attorney near you.

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