A Win for Passengers: Court Concludes State Negligence Claims Against Airline Can Proceed

CHICAGO, IL, June 7, 2017

By Timothy S. Tomasik

With the future of a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines up in the air, a Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that a passenger’s claims are back on solid ground. In a recent opinion, the court held that a plaintiff’s negligence claims against the Dallas-based airline were not preempted by the Federal Aviation Act (FAA). Okeke-Henry v. Southwest Airlines, Co., 2017 PA Super 102 (filed Apr. 13, 2017). Turning largely on an analysis of what actually constitutes “operation” of an aircraft, the court stated that there was “no basis for concluding that the incident occurred in the course of the operation of the aircraft so as to come under the FAA’s preemption umbrella.”

The case stems from injuries plaintiff Chinweifenu Okeke-Henry sustained when another passenger’s suitcase struck her in the head during boarding of a Southwest Airlines light at Denver International Airport. Okeke-Henry alleged Southwest failed to properly monitor the boarding process, train its employees, and provide for the safety of its passengers. In response, Southwest filed a motion for judgement on the pleadings, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiff’s state-law negligence claims were preempted by the standards delineated in the FAA. In April 2016, a Philadelphia trial court judge agreed with Southwest and dismissed Okeke-Henry’s claims for failure to allege a violation of the standard of care under the FAA.

Writing for the three-person panel, Superior Court Judge Victor P. Stabile found that the trial court erred in determining that the appellant’s claims were federally preempted.

Answering the question of whether the FAA preempts claims of negligence relating to boarding an aircraft was not an easy task. As the court noted, a review of case law “revealed no case in either this Court or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressing FAA preemption of state negligence claims under circumstances even remotely similar to the case before us.” Recognizing it was dealing with a case of first impression, the court turned to the Third Circuit’s holdings in two airline preemption cases: Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc. and Elassaad v. Independence Air, Inc.

On one hand, the court had Abudullah, where the Third Circuit held that FAA’s standards of care preempted the negligence claims of passengers injured due to in-flight turbulence. On the other, the court had Elassaad, where the Third Circuit found that standard of care provided by the FAA did not apply when a disabled passenger was injured disembarking a plane.

Where the trial court relied on Abdullah, Stabile emphasized that Okeke-Henrys claims were “more akin to that in Elassaad.” Stabile’s decision here seems to be largely attributed to the Elassaad court’s analysis of what constitutes “operations for the purpose of air navigation.” The standard of care set forth in section 91.13 of the Aviation Act states that:

(a) Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

In addressing the question of what constituted “operations for the purpose of air navigation,” the Elassaad court emphasized the fact that the aircraft had “landed, taxied to the gate, and come to a complete stop.” These factors all contributed to its finding that the aircraft was not in “operations for the purpose of air navigation” at the time of the alleged injury. In so ruling, the Elassaad court found that “there was no indication that either Congress or the FAA intended that federal law would impose a legal duty in an area that is neither specifically regulated by federal law nor clearly governed by a general federal standard of care.”

Like the plane in Elassaad, which had finished taxiing to the gate, the Southwest plane at issue was stopped for boarding, thus not in “operations for the purpose of air navigation.” Because the plane was not in “operation” at the time of the incident, Judge Stabile and the rest of the court held that the FAA’s standard of care was inapplicable.

View original American Bar Association story here.
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