Preemption Arguments in Monroe v. Cessna
By: Kreindler Legal Staff
- In Monroe v. Cessna Aircraft Co., Kreindler aviation attorneys claimed on behalf of plaintiffs that under Texas law Cessna was negligent in the crash of a 172S because well-known procedures to respond to in-flight structural damage were not in the Pilot Operating Handbook.
- Cessna argued that because there are so many Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) covering so many aspects of aviation, they collectively preempt the standard of care in all state law claims.
- The court denied Cessna’s motion confirming that even though there are hundreds of FARs, field preemption must be determined by analyzing the specific factual allegations in each case in relation to specific federal regulations.
- The decision also considered the effect of the statute of repose of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) and acknowledged the viability of state law tort claims against manufacturers involving aircraft and parts in service for less than 18 years.
(Reprinted from Aviation Law)
In the wake of the tort reform movement, field preemption has become particularly attractive to defendants as a potential means for disposing of or significantly limiting broad categories of state law claims. Aviation law has recently been the subject of such attacks.
FARs or State Law?
In courts around the country, aircraft and component part manufacturers have been filing motions to dismiss or for summary judgment asserting that the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) preempt the entire field of aviation safety. Some motions are based on the argument that the FARs supplant state law standards of care. Others contend that the mere existence and volume of the FARs evidence Congress’ intent to preclude state law tort claims altogether.
Lower courts within the Fifth Circuit recently have faced a number of motions asserting that the FARs impliedly preempt the entire field of aviation safety. One such case is Monroe v. Cessna Aircraft Co., presently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.
In Monroe, an instructor and a student pilot hit a bird during a training flight in a Cessna 172S aircraft. The bird caused significant damage to the left wing, altering the plane’s stall speed and flight characteristics. While attempting an emergency landing, the student and instructor were killed when the aircraft stalled at an unexpectedly high speed. The plaintiffs claim that under Texas law, Cessna was negligent and the aircraft was unreasonably dangerous because Cessna failed to include well-known procedures to respond to in-flight structural damage in the 172S aircraft’s Pilot Operating Handbook.
In response, Cessna filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the FARs, under the doctrine of field preemption, preclude the plaintiffs’ Texas law claims. Cessna urged the court to follow the reasoning of the Third and Sixth Circuits in Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc.1 and Greene v. B.F. Goodrich Avionics Systems, Inc.2 It also interpreted the Fifth Circuit’s opinion in Witty v. Delta Air Lines, Inc.3 as a prediction that the Fifth Circuit would ultimately align itself with the Third and Sixth Circuits if faced with the field preemption issue.
In a published opinion, the court denied Cessna’s motion, stating, among other things, that after a review of all relevant case law, it found the reasoning of the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits in Cleveland v. Piper Aircraft Corp.4 and Pub. Health Trust of Dade County, Fla. v. Lake Aircraft, Inc.5 to be more sound.6 Witty was found to be inapplicable because the Fifth Circuit expressly limited its holding to the facts of that case and refused to comment on the broader field preemption issue.
The GARA Effect
The Monroe opinion is important for several reasons. First, it offers a concise, yet thorough, analysis of the field preemption issue within the context of the FARs. It is also one of the very few opinions that consider the effect of the General Aviation Revitalization Act (GARA) on this question. Finally, Monroe emphasizes that field preemption must be determined by analyzing the specific factual allegations in each case in relation to specific federal regulations that pertain to those allegations, if any.
GARA was enacted in 1994 as an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.7 Primarily, GARA is a statute of repose that precludes products liability lawsuits against manufacturers of aircraft or component parts that have been in service for more than 18 years. Thus, the statute essentially offers an express preemption of state statutes of limitations for such lawsuits. Read another way, however, GARA is a clear acknowledgment by Congress of the continuing viability of state law tort claims against manufacturers for aircraft and parts that have been in service for less than 18 years.
The Monroe court agreed with this reading, citing language from the House Report on GARA that “demonstrates that Congress did not intend to preempt the entire field of aviation,” and which offers “strong support of Congress’ intent not to preempt.”8 Unlike most opinions addressing field preemption and the FARs, Monroe offers an excellent discussion of GARA as an often-overlooked indicator of congressional intent. Lastly, the Monroe court addressed the scope and effect of the specific regulations at issue in the case. Courts and defendants often analyze this aspect of the field preemption analysis incorrectly.
Cessna, as many other defendants do, claimed the FARs comprehensively govern the field of aviation safety such that they collectively preempt the standard of care in all state law claims within the field. In other words, Cessna argued that field preemption existed simply because there are so many FARs covering so many aspects of aviation. This overly broad and oversimplified approach, however, misses the point that preemption, whether express or implied, must be based on specificity.
In Monroe, the FAR at issue concerned the contents of aircraft flight manuals. It was the only one on point, and it was drafted broadly and left a great deal of discretion to the manufacturer. Focusing on the discretionary portion of the regulation, the court found that it plainly demonstrated the “lack of [a] pervasive and precise regulatory scheme” with regard to aircraft manual contents.9
Accordingly, the Monroe opinion confirms that even though there are literally hundreds of FARs addressing many aspects of aviation from pilot training to general aircraft operations to commercial airline insurance issues, field preemption can only exist in the narrow avenues where it is clear that Congress intended a specific regulation or set of regulations to govern the particular matter at issue. The Monroe opinion underscores the fact that field preemption is not, as defense counsel often contend, a magic bullet that precludes all state law claims related to aviation safety. The opinion offers an insightful analysis of many well-worn arguments on both sides of the debate and adds new texture by exploring the usually overlooked effect of GARA. While the Fifth Circuit’s views on field preemption within the context of the FARs remain to be seen, Monroe will certainly provide that court and others with a cogent and persuasive framework from which to begin.
Originally appeared in Aviation Law, Section Connection, Volume 14, Number 2. A Publication of the American Association for Justice (AAJ).
- 181 F.3d 363, 376 (3d Cir.1999).
- 409 F.3d 784 (6th Cir. 2005).
- 366 F.3d 380 (5th Cir.2004).
- 985 F.2d 1438, 1444 (10th Cir.1993).
- 992 F.2d 291, 295 (11th Cir.1993).
- Monroe v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 417 F.Supp.2d 824, 835 (E.D. Tex. 2006).
- General Aviation Revitalization Act, Pub.L. 103-298 (1994).
- Monroe, 417 F. Supp at 832.
- Id. at 833.