California State Tort Law Is Not Pre-Empted By Federal Aviation Regulations, U.S. District Court in California Holds

For the third time in just over a month, a court has ruled on whether state law is pre-empted by federal law concerning aviation.  This time, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California held in two separate cases concerning the same facts, Ritz v. Mountain Lifeflight, No.  12-CV-00134 (E.D. Cal. April 17, 2012) and Reger v. Mountain Lifeflight, No.  11-CV-03301 (E.D. Cal. April 17, 2012), that federal aviation regulations do not pre-empt some state tort claims.

Both of these cases involve a helicopter crash on November 14, 2009, that resulted in the deaths of two men.  The Plaintiffs in both cases asserted causes of action based on negligence and strict liability against the various defendants.  One of the Defendants, AEC Eurocopter Corporation, removed the action to federal court claiming that the case involved a “federal question,” because federal aviation regulations, especially as they relate to aviation safety, pre-empt state law.  The Plaintiffs then sought a remand back to state court.

Citing Martin ex rel. Heckman v. Midwest Exp. Holdings, Inc., 555F.3d 806, 808 (9th Cir. 2009) and 49 U.S.C. § 40120(c), the Court held that in the area of aviation safety, Congress expressly preserved state law tort causes of action.  Only if the Federal Aviation Regulations in a certain area constitute “pervasive regulation,” will the state law causes of action be pre-empted.  The Court concluded that federal aviation regulations, if sufficiently pervasive, only pre-empt the state law standard of care for Plaintiffs’ claims, but not the state law claims themselves.  Thus, the Court found that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and remanded the matter back to California state court.

These cases come on the heels of Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. v. The County of Ventura, No.B232307 (Cal.App.2d  March 20, 2012), in which a California state appellate court held that standard of care in a state tort claim was not pre-empted by non-mandatory federal aviation regulations.  See California Appellate Court Decides that State Tort Law Is not Pre-Empted by Non-Mandatory Federal Standards.  It also follows a New York federal court ruling in Moffitt v. JetBlue Airways Corp., No. 11-CV-1387 (N.D.N.Y. April 5, 2012) which held that the plaintiffs’ state tort claims were expressly pre-empted by federal law.  See New York State Tort Claims Pre-Empted By Airline Deregulation Act, U.S. District Court In New York Concludes.

There now seems to be a growing conflict between the Circuits about what is and is not pre-empted by federal aviation regulations.  The Second, Third, Sixth and Tenth Circuits have all held that the Federal Aviation Act present “field pre-emption” for aviation safety, thereby pre-empting all state tort claims that involve issues of aviation safety.  However, the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Martin (and now the decisions in Ritz, Reger and Sierra Pacific) seems to take a different approach, allowing state tort claims to go forward if the federal regulations in the specific area covered by the tort claim or state law at issue are not “pervasive.”

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