United States: Third Circuit Grapples With Issue Of Whether Federal Aviation Act Preempts Design Defect Claims Based On State Law Standards Of Care

Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp. arises from the crash in 2005 of a single engine, 1976 model Cessna 172N aircraft. The plaintiff alleged that the aircraft lost power and crashed as the result of a malfunction or defect in the engine's carburetor. The aircraft's Lycoming O-320 engine was type certificated in 1966, manufactured in 1969, put in long term storage, installed "factory new" in 1998, and over-hauled by a third party with a replacement carburetor that was installed in 2004. A wrongful death and survival action was filed in federal court in Pennsylvania by the pilot's surviving spouse in 2007.

Plaintiff originally alleged state common law claims against 17 defendants, including under theories of strict liability, breach of warranty and negligence. In 2010, the trial court granted the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, holding that plaintiff's state law claims, based on state law standards of care, were preempted because they fell within the preempted "field of air safety" described in Abdullah v. American Airlines, 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999).

Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint in which she continued to assert state law claims, but also incorporated federal standards of care by alleging violations of numerous federal aviation regulations. She ultimately narrowed her claims to defective design (negligence and strict liability) and failure to warn. Lycoming filed another motion for partial summary judgment, on the design defect claims only. The District Court granted the motion, concluding that the FAA's issuance of a type certificate for the engine meant that the federal standard of care was satisfied as a matter of law. The District Court also certified the summary judgment order for immediate appeal, and the Third Circuit granted interlocutory appeal.

During the appeal, the Third Circuit sought input from the FAA as amicus curiae. In response to specific questions posed by the Third Circuit, the FAA responded with its positions that: (1) the Federal Aviation Act ("Act") impliedly preempts the field of aviation safety with respect to substantive standards of safety; (2) the Act does not preempt state tort suits; (3) federal standards of care govern state tort suits based on design defects in aviation manufacturing; (4) an FAA-issued type certificate does not create a per se bar to a lawsuit; (5) whether a type certificate preempts a plaintiff's claim is governed by ordinary conflict preemption principles; and (6) where the FAA has approved the specific design aspect that a plaintiff challenges, any claim that the design should have been different is preempted.

The Third Circuit ultimately did not agree with much of this input received from the FAA. In a precedential decision filed on April 19, 2016, a unanimous three judge panel reversed the entry of partial summary judgment on the design defect claims. The Court held that Abdullah, in which the Third Circuit held that federal law preempts the "field of aviation safety," does not extend to state law products liability claims. The Court reasoned that "[i]n light of principles of federalism and the presumption against preemption, Congress must express its clear and manifest intent to preempt an entire field of state law". The Court did not find this intent in the text and legislative history of the Federal Aviation Act.

The Third Circuit also concluded that "Congress did not intend to preempt aircraft products liability claims in a categorical way," and held "that neither the Act nor the issuance of a type certificate per se preempts all aircraft design and manufacturing claims." Finally, the Court found that "subject to traditional principles of conflict preemption...aircraft product liability cases like Appellant's may proceed using a state standard of care."

On May 17, 2016, Appellee AVCO Corporation (through its Lycoming Engines division) filed a petition for rehearing by the Third Circuit en banc, asserting that the appeal involves a question of exceptional legal and practical importance—whether the Federal Aviation Act preempts design defect claims based on state law standards of care. In the petition, AVCO argues that the Third Circuit "panel's decision cannot be reconciled with Abdullah, and, if allowed to stand, will undermine the uniform regulatory scheme created by Congress."

This case will continue to command intense scrutiny from the aviation industry as it works its way through the federal courts. Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7015 (3d Cir. Apr. 19, 2016).

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