AOPA Defends FAA Aircraft Approval & Leads By Example
Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, General Aviation’s largest, most influential association in the world, as its name makes it clear, represents the folks who fly these airplanes. The Frederick, MD organization has submitted amicus curiae brief in the case of Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp. before the US Supreme Court. A friend of the court pleading is submitted, by counsel to an entity other than the litigants, to bring a unique and compelling position to the 8 Justices.
The AOPA filing should have a significant impact on the proceedings.
As summarized by AOPA, the facts of the case are as follows:
“The case, Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., involves a 2005 airplane crash in North Carolina following an engine failure. The pilot was fatally injured, and his spouse filed a lawsuit against the engine’s manufacturer, claiming that the failure was the result of a design defect in the carburetor. In 2014, a U.S. District Court found that there was no design defect in the carburetor because the engine was certified and approved by the FAA. But in April of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed that decision. It found that the FAA’s federal regulatory role did not preempt state law standards of care in aviation products liability actions. It also found that the FAA’s certification and approval of the engine did not eliminate the possibility of a design defect. That ruling allows juries to hold a manufacturer to state design standards, even if the manufacturer satisfied all FAA regulations and the FAA approved and certified the product.”
The plaintiff is the pilot’s wife and the defendant is the manufacturer of the carburetor. One might expect that AOPA would be a voice for the litigant claiming that the defective product should be at fault.
That assumption is false and because the Justices might expect that AOPA might side with one of its members, the words of the amicus curiae might be found in some decisional document.
“’This case presents an important question about the states’ role in ensuring continued operational safety of aircraft approved by the FAA,’ AOPA wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted to the Supreme Court. ‘As owners and pilots, AOPA members have a substantial interest in the duties imposed upon manufacturers to address unsafe conditions in FAA-approved designs. These duties significantly affect the safety of existing aircraft and future aircraft produced in accordance with that design. Additionally, the cumulative cost effect of aviation products liability actions on manufacturers is also passed onto aircraft owners. Thus, state-law duties defined in an aviation products liability action affect the cost of purchasing new and maintaining existing aircraft.’
For decades, the FAA has been responsible not only for certifying new designs but also for monitoring, identifying, and addressing any unsafe conditions that may arise after an aircraft has been approved and certified. To ensure continued safety, the FAA may issue airworthiness directives and require manufacturers to make design changes in future production aircraft. It also must approve any and all voluntary changes to the aircraft’s design. In its brief, AOPA wrote that using state design standards in aviation liability actions interferes with these long-standing responsibilities of the FAA.
It’s vitally important that manufacturers have one set of standards, established by the FAA, to adhere to,” said Mead. “Otherwise they can face the nearly impossible and very costly challenge of trying to follow a hodgepodge of potentially contradictory state standards. That’s bad for safety, it’s bad for manufacturers, and it’s bad for aircraft owners who end up, quite literally, paying the price.”
The AOPA position is so counterintuitive that it is likely that the Justices, actually their brilliant law clerks, will read and carefully ponder the association’s argument.
What is really MOST impressive in the AOPA’s advocacy is that it has taken a statesman-like position. It could have easily been myopic and arguing that the pilot should have a low standard of proof of negligence. Instead, its lawyers asserted that the Supreme Court should recognize the validity of the FAA certification judgment and such airworthiness criteria should be applied by all state courts. The logic of AOPA’s brief is that an uncertain measure of what constitutes liability will inflate the costs of this litigation and thus of the next aircraft sold.
Taking the perspicacious perspective is good for aviation policy in the long term. Recently, there has been an inordinate tendency for air organizations to take positions which ignore the broader impacts.
AOPA should be commended, and its willingness to do what is best for the aviation system sets a great example.