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Sikkelee and Aviation Product Liability Claims

In 2005, David Sikkelee and his brother had just taken off when their Cessna 172N lost power, crashed into the ground, and erupted in flames. A government investigation found problems with the carburetor which regulates the engine's air-gas ratio and speed. This led to a lawsuit called Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp. This wrongful death case, which was filed by Sikkelee's widow, has since led to significant changes in:

  • The entire field of aviation product liability for some states
  • Narrowing federal preemption law in the airways

What Are Aviation Product Liability Claims?

Large commercial airline crashes in the U.S. are rare but still happen. Smaller, private airplanes face less government regulation but they are involved in accidents more often. Many aviation accidents are attributed to pilot error, but a large number are the result of aircraft defects. Accidents involving aircraft defects can give rise to aviation product liability claims.

Product liability claims are lawsuits against manufacturers or distributors of faulty products. In this context, they refer to legal action against producers of airplane component parts (aviation manufacturers). State law standards of care can extend to claims regarding:

  • Aircraft design
  • Aircraft engine parts
  • Other aerospace construction issues that may affect airworthiness

Product liability is largely a state tort law issue. For example, suppose a plaintiff brings design defect claims against aerospace companies like AVCO or Lycoming. They may be alleging that an engine manufacturer failed to meet minimum standards of safety. Here, state law products liability claims will usually follow state law standards of case. That means tort claims would be controlled by state law rather than federal law. However, state laws can be preempted, as we will discuss below.

To learn more about defective product designs and failure to warn claims, visit our product liability and aviation accidents page.

What Is Preemption in the Field of Aviation Safety?

Imagine if the federal government had a rule requiring airplanes to be built a certain way. Now picture a state's government creating a similar rule with different construction standards. A conflict between what federal law and state law require may occur. This is because state codes and federal statutory regulations set different standards. While laws vary greatly across fifty different states, the federal government has uniform laws such as:

  • The General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA)
  • The Federal Aviation Act of 1958, which created the Federal Aviation Administration
  • The Code of Federal Regulations for Aeronautics and Space (14 C.F.R.)
  • Title 49 Transportation Laws (49 U.S.C)

In situations where federal and state law could both apply to an issue, conflict can create confusion and uncertainty. To resolve this problem, we need to know which law to follow. The Supreme Court's decisions regarding preemption resolve uncertainty. The Court's preemption doctrine states that federal law controls over state law whenever:

  • Congress expressly provided for federal law to preempt (supersede) state law
  • The state law directly conflicts with federal law (is “conflict preempted") or interferes with federal objectives, also known as conflict preemption
  • Federal law thoroughly occupies a field of law, such as travel and transportation between states. In that case, it's reasonable to assume Congressional intent to preempt state law in that field. This is also known as field or implied preemption.

In our imaginary example, suppose there's a lawsuit regarding airplane part defects. Under federal law regarding defects the plaintiff will lose, but under state law the opposite will happen. Thus, a case can have different decisions depending on the law that is applied. In other words, the ultimate outcome in a case can hinge on preemption. This is because federal and state laws sometimes produce different results.

Preemption and the Standard of Care Dispute in Sikkelee

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

Many of these plaintiff's claims were initially based on standards of care under state law instead of federal law. The Sikkelee lawsuit relied on state laws rather than federal laws that also controlled the issues in play. This created a preemption analysis problem due to how the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had historically ruled on these issues.

The Third Circuit is a court that handles appeals for federal cases brought in Pennsylvania and some other states. In the earlier case of Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc., the Third Circuit applied field preemption to air safety. It ruled that federal law establishes the applicable standards of care in the field of air safety. In other words, the court in Abdullah found that federal law preempts the entire field of air safety from regulation by states.

How Preemption Could Have Affected Sikkelee

The problem for Sikkelee's family was that the defendants would have likely won under federal law. That is because the federal standards of care were more lenient for the defendants. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of the airplane engine had received a Type Certificate. It had been issued to the defendants by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The certificate indicated that under FAA regulations the product was:

  • Properly designed
  • Properly manufactured
  • Met minimum federal standards

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
  • Risk/utility balancing

Therefore, federal preemption could have weakened the Sikkelee case. It could have lowered the applicable standard of care requirements that the defendants had to meet. The defendants would have been much better off being subject only to federal aviation regulations because the plaintiff was relying on state standards of care which were far less forgiving.

Verdict: Preemption Did Not Apply to Sikkelee

In deciding Sikkelee, the Third Circuit acknowledged its prior ruling of field preemption for air safety. Fortunately for Sikkelee's family, the court held that federal preemption did not apply in this case. To make this finding, the Third Circuit limited the preempted field of air safety to in-air operations.

The court determined that aviation product liability fell outside the field. Liability applied to design defects in the production phase of an aircraft before it takes flight. The court also found that Congress didn't intend to preempt aviation product liability claims.

The Third Circuit also highlighted a difference between:

  • Federal Type Certificate laws
  • Federal in-flight laws

The court stated that federal regulations for Type Certificates are separate. They are distinct from federal rules applying to in-flight standards. The court also found that Type Certificate laws were not very comprehensive or complete in scope. Instead, it found states should determine standards of care for airplane product manufacturers.

What Does This Mean for Aviation Product Liability Cases?

The Third Circuit is a federal appeals court. It only handles federal cases brought in Pennsylvania district courts and a handful of other states. The US federal court system has 11 other circuits that handle cases for many other states. Thus, the Sikkelee holding has important implications for cases going forward:

  • It shows that success in aviation product liability cases may depend on the Circuit in which the case is filed. Other jurisdictions could uphold preemption and apply the federal standard of care.
  • It shows that the issuance of a Type Certificate by the FAA may not necessarily set a standard of care. The certification process may not necessarily prove compliance in aviation product liability cases.

Get Legal Help With Your Aviation Product Liability Case

When it comes to aviation product liability cases, filing a lawsuit can be difficult. The most basic decisions can be daunting when the FAA is involved. Deciding where to file can have significant consequences. 

In this complex area of the law, it's critical to have an experienced attorney at your side. They can help you navigate the judicial airways in these situations and land you a favorable summary judgment. Get help today by getting in touch with a personal injury attorney near you.

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