January 31, 2017

Court holds that federal law does not preempt state product liability claims in air crash case

In a case brought by the estate of retired doctor Virgil Victor Becker, a passenger killed in the 2008 crash of a single-propeller airplane near McMurray, Washington, that state’s Supreme Court has held that the Federal Aviation Authorization Act of 1994 (the “Act”) does not preempt state law product liability claims.  The estate alleged that the airplane’s carburetor float malfunctioned, which caused the engine to flood and stall, resulting in the crash.  The estate brought state law product liability claims against the assembler of the carburetor (Forward Technology Industries, Inc. (“FTI”)) and other defendants.

The trial court awarded summary judgment to FTI, and the appellate court affirmed, finding that “federal regulations pervasively regulate an airplane engine’s fuel system,” which constituted “implied field preemption [that] precludes applying a state law standard of care to [the Estate’s] claims.”  Washington’s Supreme Court reversed, concluding that the Act does not preempt state law and, in doing so, agreed with two recent federal appellate decisions.  See Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., 822 F.3d 680 (3d Cir. 2016), cert. denied, 196 L. Ed. 2d 433 (2016) (holding that federal law’s preemption of the field of aviation safety did not extend to state law products liability claims brought against engine manufacturer in airplane crash case); Martin v. Midwest Express Holdings, Inc., 555 F.3d 806 (9th Cir. 2009) (state law product liability claims brought by a plaintiff that had fallen down a flight of airstairs were not preempted by the Act).

There are three methods that the US Congress may use to preempt state law:  express preemption (the federal statute explicitly states Congress’ intent to preempt state law); conflict preemption (the state law conflicts with federal law); and field preemption (the federal law and regulations are so pervasive that Congress clearly intended to preempt state law).  The Washington Supreme Court found that the federal regulations cited by FTI in support of its preemption argument focused on “performance and safety standards” of aircraft engines and were not so “comprehensive and pervasive” as to demonstrate Congress’ intent to preempt state law.  Rather, the Court found that the FAA regulations are a floor or minimum for engine design standards, and Congress did not intend them to supplant state law standards of care or replace state tort remedies.

Estate of Becker v. AVCO Corp., et al., No. 92972-6 (Wash. Jan. 26, 2017).

For more information, please contact Nicholas Magali in our New York office.