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FAA – Federal Pre-emption and Aircraft Certification: You Have to Read This Opinion!!

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Today, we turn our attention to the latest chapter in a long saga concerning the scope of federal preemption over product liability claims made against manufacturers of certificated aviation component parts. Back in 2014, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that design defect claims against certificated product manufacturers  were completely preempted by the Federal Aviation Act.  In 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed, finding that the certification process does not automatically preempt the entire field of safe design.  The Court of Appeals did, however, leave open the possibility that under the right facts, liability under state tort law might be incompatible with the Federal Aviation Regulations, producing enough of a conflict to preempt state law, and ordered the lower court to take anther look at the issue.

In the District Court’s latest 115-page decision, Judge Brann has found that product liability claims against Lycoming are preempted. In this case, the engine in question was manufactured by Lycoming in 1969 and shipped to a user, who never actually installed it in an aircraft.  Instead, the engine sat in long term storage for 29 years.  In 1998, the engine was installed in a Cessna 172N, which did not even exist when the original engine received its type certificate.  In 2004, after the aircraft was struck by lightning, the carburetor was overhauled by a third party, resulting in what was described as a “Frankenstein’s monster” carburetor comprised of two different after market halves manufactured decades apart, and joined together with a third set of parts from a different after market parts manufacturer.  The plane crashed in 2005, killing the pilot and seriously injuring a passenger.

Suit was subsequently filed by plaintiff against Lycoming and the company that performed the “overhaul” of the carburetor, claiming that the accident resulted when the float bowl came loose from the carburetor’s throttle body, causing a loss of power.  In 2010, the Plaintiff settled with the defendant who performed the overhaul for $2 million, and continued to pursue Lycoming.

The plaintiff alleged that Lycoming was liable based on its design of the original carburetor, on which the after market parts were based. The plaintiffs proposed, in accordance with Pennsylvania tort law, that Lycoming could have changed a number of the features of the design of the gasket and lock washers, which would have made the product safer.  The Court noted, however, that all of those proposed modifications would have been “major changes” under the regulations, and Lycoming could not have made them without FAA approval.  In addition, to the extent that the changes could or should have been made by the third party that did the overhaul, that company had its own authority from the FAA that Lycoming had no influence or control over.

Apart from this significant holding, the opinion is also noteworthy for another reason: the way it is written. For anyone who has struggled to understand how aircraft are certified, how after market parts are certified, the role that designated engineering representatives play, and how the certification system is navigated, this decision is for you.  The Court lays out the law with an admirable amount of detail and clarity.  In addition, the opinion is fun to read because it is spiced with passages that go beyond normal dry legal analysis.  For example, the opinion opens with the following:

A weightless innocence so often attends our daydreams of flight. As the American aviator John Gillespie Magee, Jr., loftily described it, pilots “dance[ ] the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” soaring “high in the sunlit silence.” Sadly, it would seem that Magee’s “high untrespassed sanctity of space” must belong to a universe far away from the dark origins and convoluted history of this case.

Similarly, the Court’s analysis sums up the long path this case has followed over the past 10 years with these words:

At first glance, this case appears to present puzzling questions of conflict preemption and proximate cause in the field of aviation. Yet, I have come to suspect that its complexity, like that of a shimmering oasis in the eyes of a weary wanderer, may be nothing more than a clever mirage flowing from strained interpretations of the law and academic daydreams divorced from fact.

While I am sure most of us can find things to read at the beach that are more exciting, if you want to learn something about federal preemption and aviation law, this is an opinion worth your while.

A copy of the opinion can be found HERE.