Aviation Law Ties Trucking Injury Cases Together


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—Aviation Lawyers Blazing The Trail On Preemption

As trucking and aviation attorneys, our practice plays an important role in keeping the airways AND roadways safe for passengers, crew, and individuals on the ground as well as in the air.  One of the most important parts of our practice involves keeping the tort ball in our court, so that we can bring negligence causes of action against responsible parties when their negligent acts cause harm to others.  In this context, because aviation is so intricately tied to and governed by federal law, the issue of federal preemption is one we must constantly deal with.  As it turns out, our efforts on this front are also trailblazing the way for other developing areas of the law.

I saw this firsthand in a trucking case we are handling that recently took us to at least five different states in a two week time period.  As we found ourselves in the middle of Kansas, I thought of John Candy and Steve Martin in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, when Steve Martin’s character says:  “Are you saying I could be stuck in Witchita?” to which John Candy responds, “I’m saying you are stuck in Witchita.”

While I was soon able to escape Kansas with nothing more than a bad case of indigestion from the local hamburger joint where we ate lunch, I soon discovered that Kansas was not the only thing tying our trucking case to the “Planes” aspect of the movie.  As it turns out, one of the defendants in the case would soon attempt to use provisions of Federal Aviation law to gain a quick dismissal of their trucking defendant from the case.

The defendant in this case, one of the largest global third-party logistics companies in the country, relied upon language in the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”) in bringing a FRCP 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.  Under the preemption provision of 49 U.S.C.§ 14501(c), generally a state may not pass laws related to “a price, route, or service” of a motor carrier, broker, or freight forwarder with regard to the transportation of property.  Thus, our trucking defendant was trying to use federal aviation law to preempt our state-law tort claim and have our claim dismissed.

Fortunately, we were prepared to draw from aviation precedent under the similar provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act applicable to air carriers, which prohibits states from passing laws related to “price, route, or service” of an air carrier that provides air transportation.  49 U.S.C.§ 41713.

The defendant in our trucking case essentially argued that as a broker, it provided a “service” and that the manner it did business created “efficiencies” enabling the defendant “to provide an economic benefit to the ultimate consumer of the goods it brokers by lowering the cost of doing business.”  The defendant relied heavily upon the 2008 U.S.Supreme Court case of Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Ass’n, 552 U.S. 370 (2008) in contending that state regulations, including non-economic regulations, that regulate a company’s activities impermissibly substitute a “government command” for “competitive market forces in determining…the services that [the] carrier will provide.”  Rowe, 552U.S. at 372.   The defendant was essentially arguing that any state interference in the way it did business was related to the “service” it provides and therefore preempted.  If accepted, this effectively would have allowed a defendant to do whatever it wanted to do—or not do—no matter the resulting danger to people on the roadways, in the name of efficiency and cheaper transportation.  Fortunately, the district court saw through this.

Our preemption argument began by pointing out that preemption analysis begins with “the assumption that the historic police powers of the States are not superseded by…federal act unless that [is] the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.”  Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, 555 U.S. 70, 76 (2008).  In this context, safety has traditionally been within the States’ police powers that are presumed not to be preempted by federal law.  Hillsborough County v. Automated Medical Laboriatories, 741 U.S. 707, 715 (1985).  As such, courts have consistently declined to find preemption of state tort law involving personal injury.  Trinidad v. American Airlines, Inc., 932 F. Supp. 521 (S.D.N.Y. 1996); O’Hern V. Delta Airlines, 838 F. Supp. 1264 (N.D. Ill. 1993); Rodriguez v. American Airlines, Inc., 886 F. Supp. 967 (Dist. P.R. 1995); Margolis v. United Airlines, Inc., 811 F. Supp. 318 (E.D. Mich. 1993); Stewart v. American Airlines, Inc., 776 F. Supp. 1194 (S.D. Tex. 1991); Stone v. Frontier Airlines, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D. Mass 2002).

Given this, the preemption language of the FAAAA does not manifest a clear and manifest purpose to preempt state law for personal injury.  As the District Court for Puerto Ricostated in Rodriguez v. American Airlines, Inc.:

State personal injuries claims grounded on safety or lack thereof are not ‘related to’ ‘services’….This Court finds that personal injury claims under [state] substantive law are traditionally occupied by state law requiring a strong presumption against implied preemption, not overcome on this subject matter by a clear Congressional purpose….We find that the state damages set forth by plaintiffs…are not implied or expressly preempted….

Rodriguez, 886 F. Supp. 967 at 971-972.    Many other cases in the aviation context have likewise found that preemption did not apply in cases for personal injury under state law.  For example, there was no preemption for personal injury in the following:

•O’Hern v. Delta Airlines, 838 F.Supp. 1264 (N.D.Ill 1993).  No preemption for claimed permanent hearing damage resulting from alleged negligence including careless operation, maintenance, and/or control of the aircraft, failing to take precautions to ensure the aircraft was not flown under dangerous conditions, negligent hiring, failing to properly train, educate, advise or supervise its agents, and ascending the aircraft at too rapid a speed.

•Butcher v. City of Houston, 813 F. Supp. 515 (S.D.Tex. 1993).  State law negligence claims for injuries from slip and fall at airport were not “related to airline services.”  Court stated that “it is inconceivable that Congress intended to preempt state common law duties in this context.”

•Margolis v. United Airlines, Inc., 811 F. Supp. 318 (E.D. Mich. 1993).  No preemption in personal injury negligence action, including negligent training and hiring, negligent maintenance, and negligent failure to warn passengers of unsafe condition, for injuries from luggage carrier that fell from overhead bin.  The court stated that “[a] state common law claim based on negligence and the standard of reasonable care does not purport to regulate the services that air carriers provide to their customers in exchange for their fares.”

•Stone v. Frontier Airlines, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D.Mass. 2002).  Negligence for failure to carry a defibrillator resulting in failure to save passenger in cardiac arrest was distinct from a “service” and not preempted.

It was therefore clear that the Rowe case was not on point in this case and did not require preemption.  To begin with, Rowe did not involve a personal injury claim.  Instead, it involved a Maine statute that forbid licensed tobacco retailers from employing a “delivery service” unless it followed particular delivery procedures.  This had a “significant and adverse impact” regarding the federal Act’s ability to achieve its preemption related objectives because it would require carriers to offer a system of services the market does not provide, producing the effect of a State substituting its commands for competitive market forces in determining to a significant degree what services the carrier will provide.  Our case, on the other hand, is a personal injury tort claim dealing with issues of safety.  Rowe was not dealing with such a tort case over safety issues, but instead a clear case where the state was trying to dictate how the carriers provided their “service.”

The district court ultimately ruled in our client’s favor and denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.  This was an important decision not only for our client’s case, but also for future plaintiffs who attempt to hold similar defendants responsible when they do business in a negligent, unsafe manner that cause harm on the roadways.  Thankfully, as trucking and aviation attorneys we have collectively already “been there, done that” and blazed the trail for other areas of the law dealing with similar issues.  Broker liability is a developing area in trucking law, and one where defendants will make any possible argument to avoid liability for their actions.  Fortunately, aviation lawyers have already fought the battle on this issue.

As a final point of interest, we recently settled the above referenced case for an undisclosed amount. We settled with the trucking company and the truck broker company for amounts that far exceeded our client’s expectations.