U.S. Court of Appeals Rules that State-Law Claims Are Not Barred Based on Doctrine of Field Pre-emption in Wrongful Death Aircraft Case

David Sikkelee was killed when a Cessna aircraft he was piloting crashed after taking off from North Carolina’s Transylvania County Airport. The plane had a Lycoming engine. In the lawsuit, his wife, Jill Sikkelee, alleged that the aircraft lost power due to defects in the design of the engine and its carburetor.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had issued Lycoming a type of certificate for the engine, certifying that the design performs properly and satisfies federal regulations.

Jill Sikkelee brought strict liability and negligence claims against Lycoming alleging design defects. On appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court for the 3rd Circuit, it was held that her state-law claims were not barred based on the doctrine of field preemption. On remand, the federal district court concluded that the claims were conflict-preempted and that Lycoming was entitled to summary judgment on Sikkelee’s strict liability and negligence claims based on Pennsylvania law.

The trial court granted Lycoming summary judgment on Sikkelee’s claim that Lycoming violated 14 C.F.R. 21.3 by choosing not to notify the FAA that Sikkelee’s claims were conflict-preempted because FAA regulations made it impossible for Lycoming to unilaterally implement design changes Pennsylvania law allegedly would have required.

It was held that Lycoming had not produced clear evidence that the FAA would not have allowed it to change the design set forth in the typed certificate.

Summary judgment on Sikkelee’s strict liability and negligence claims was inappropriate, it was held, because there are genuine disputes of material fact concerning causation.

However, the court of appeals found that summary judgment was proper on the failure-to-notify-the-FAA claim.

There was a dissenting opinion filed in this case. It was noted that the majority opinion held that Sikkelee’s claims against Lycoming were not conflict preempted. In applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009), the majority opinion concluded that because Lycoming had not produced clear evidence that the FAA would have prevented Lycoming from implementing certain design changes to the engine, it was impossible for Lycoming to unilaterally implement the design changes allegedly required under Pennsylvania law.

The dissenting opinion indicated that the majority was in error in two key ways. First, the majority took a piecemeal approach to the Supreme Court’s impossibility preemption precedents, without considering it in the aggregate. Second, the majority incorrectly framed the applicable regulatory regime, which required prior FAA approval for all changes, major and minor.

In conclusion, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s order granting Lycoming summary judgment on the Sikkelee’s state-law claims, and it affirmed the district court’s order granting Lycoming’s motion for reconsideration on Sikkelee’s failure-to-warn-the-FAA claim, and remanded the case for further proceedings back to the trial court.

Jill Sikkelee for Estate of David Sikkelee, Deceased v. Precision Airmotive Corporation, et al., No. 17-3006 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Oct. 25, 2018).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling product liability lawsuits, product defect cases, pharmaceutical defect lawsuits and catastrophic injury cases for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness, negligence or strict tort liability of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Libertyville, Richton Park, River Grove, Rosemont, Schiller Park, Des Plaines, Elgin, Joliet, Waukegan, Zion, Winfield, Deerfield, Northfield, Glenview, Glencoe, Orland Park, Worth, Chicago (Wicker Park, Logan Square, Albany Park, Bronzeville, South Shore, Jackson Park, Garfield Park, Jefferson Park), Schaumburg, St. Charles, Hinsdale and Winnetka, Ill.

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