• Ninth Circuit endorses broad federal preemption on FAA safety issues but reverses in part prior airline victory in DVT cases
  • October 17, 2007 | Author: Raymond L. Mariani
  • Law Firm: Nixon Peabody LLP - Jericho Office
  • The Ninth Circuit has just issued its opinion on the consolidated appeals of 14 plaintiffs who claimed injuries of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) from insufficient legroom on airplanes and inadequate warnings of health risks. Significantly, the court affirmed, on federal preemption grounds, the ruling of the district court with regard to a failure-to-warn claim. This marks another federal circuit endorsing very broad preemption of the nature articulated in Abdullah v. American Airlines. However, the court reversed and remanded the claim that seating was defective in design and caused the DVT injuries.

    The plaintiffs had filed lawsuits against multiple carriers and aircraft manufacturers. They allege that prolonged periods of sitting in cramped seats caused blood clotting. In many of the cases, the plaintiffs allegedly died because DVT-induced clots traveled to the heart or brain. The district court granted the manufacturers’ summary judgment motion and this ruling was not appealed.

    The district court also granted the airlines’ motion to dismiss on grounds of preemption. The district court held that the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (49 U.S.C.§40103) and regulations promulgated thereunder displace all state law claims that concern passenger warnings on safety issues. The district court also dismissed the defective seat design claim on the grounds that newly configured seating would increase airfares indirectly and thereby run afoul of another federal preemptive statute, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (49 USC § 41713(b)(1)), which precludes any state law “related to a price, route, or service of any air carrier . . . ”

    The Ninth Circuit, on appeal, agreed with the district court on the warning issue. It cited the well-known decision of Abdullah v. American Airlines from the Third Circuit (181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999)) as the benchmark for preemption in air safety cases. Absent any federal mandate to warn of the dangers of DVT, the appellate court held that the airlines were under no duty to warn and the claims must be dismissed.

    The Ninth Circuit differed, however, on the defective seat design claim. It held that the preemption created by the Deregulation Act is express, but not unlimited. The court noted prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions holding that a state regulation or law must have a “significant effect” on airline seat prices. It also held that the purpose of the Deregulation Act was not to preclude state law tort claims that may have only a peripheral effect on airlines.

    In this instance, the Ninth Circuit held that the airlines had not produced any evidence on whether changing the seating configuration would affect ticket prices and, if so, whether that would “materially impact federal deregulation.” While that might appear intuitive, the Ninth Circuit found that specific evidence on that issue must be in the record on appeal. Therefore, the court remanded all 14 cases to the district court.

    The plaintiffs and airlines must further develop the factual record on the issue before the Ninth Circuit will again review the question. This would most likely occur in the form of a renewed motion to dismiss by the airlines, which either side could then take up on appeal again.