Here’s the pre-emption argument:
Our plane’s design was approved by the FAA. If plaintiffs think there is something wrong with it, they should take it up with the FAA. But they should leave us alone.”
Manufacturers make this argument in just about every aviation case we bring. We respond that that the FAA regulations are the bare minima only, and weren’t intended to be the last word on whether an aircraft’s design is safe. Besides, the FAA is stretched so thin that it allows many manufacturers to essentially self-certify their design work. So in many cases the FAA stamp of approval was placed on the aircraft by someone who was actually on the manufacturer’s payroll. How safe is that?
Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive involved the crash of a 1998 Cessna 172. The plaintiffs alleged the crash was caused by a defective carburetur. The manufacturers asked the court to dismiss the case against them because the aircraft engine's design was FAA-approved.
The court noted the controversy concerning the FAA’s practice of allowing manufacturers to self-certify, but held it wasn’t really relevant. Instead, the court agreed with plaintiffs that Congress simply didn’t intend the FAA regulations to be the last word on safety. That means that the regulations did not pre-empt state law, and the plaintiffs' tort case against the manufacturers of the plane and the plane’s engine components could proceed.
The manufacturers argued that if plaintiffs were allowed to sue over products even though they comply with all FAA regulations, it would end up killing the aviation industry. The court had an answer for that:
On the contrary, [our holding] simply maintains the status quo that has existed since the inception of the aviation industry, preserving state tort remedies for people injured or killed in plane crashes caused by manufacturing and design defects.”
No question that aviation manufacturers will continue to make the preemption argument going forward, as they are always looking for that sympathetic ear. They just didn’t find one in the Third Circuit.