FAA Reauthorization Act Confirms Pre-emptive Effect of Statute Protecting Aircraft Lessors

 

NAFA members, Marc L. Antonecchia and John M. Toriello, Partners at Holland & Knight, discuss the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. 

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, enacted on Oct. 5, 2018,1 has clarified and confirmed the pre-emptive effect of the federal statute intended to shield from liability owners, lessors and secured parties not in operational control of an aircraft for injuries to persons on board an accident aircraft. This clarification comes by way of an amendment to the federal statute, 49 U.S.C. §44112(b). 

The Federal Statute Prior to Amendment

Prior to the amendment, 49 U.S.C. §44112(b), provided, in relevant part: 

Liability.-- A lessor, owner, or secured party is liable for personal injury, death, or property loss or damage on land or water only when a civil aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller is in the actual possession or control of the lessor, owner, or secured party, and the personal injury, death, or property loss or damage occurs because of --
(1) the aircraft, engine, or propeller; or
(2) the flight of, or an object falling from, the aircraft, engine, or propeller.

The majority of courts had held, or suggested in dicta, that the statute provided immunity to owners, lessors and secured parties not in actual possession or control of the aircraft for state law claims arising out of injuries to persons, regardless of whether or not they were on board the accident aircraft.2

Courts in a minority of jurisdictions, however, had limited the pre-emptive effect of the statute depending on whether the injured party was on the ground or a passenger on board the aircraft. Most notably, in Vreeland v. Ferrer, the Florida Supreme Court found that the "limitation on liability would apply only to individuals and property that are underneath the aircraft during its flight, ascent, or descent."3 Under the Vreeland approach, there was no pre-emption for claims made by or on behalf of persons on board the accident aircraft.

The FAA Reauthorization Act Amends 49 U.S.C. §44112(b) 

Section 514 of the FAA Reauthorization Bill, titled "Aircraft Leasing," removes any uncertainty cast by Vreeland and its progeny. It amends 49 U.S.C. §44112(b) by striking "on land or water" and inserting "operational" before "control." As a result, the statute now reads:

Liability.-- A lessor, owner, or secured party is liable for personal injury, death, or property loss or damage only when a civil aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller is in the actual possession or operational control of the lessor, owner, or secured party, and the personal injury, death, or property loss or damage occurs because of --
(1) the aircraft, engine, or propeller; or
(2) the flight of, or an object falling from, the aircraft, engine, or propeller.

The effect of the amendment is twofold. First, the deletion of "on land or water" abolishes the minority view expressed in Vreeland that there is a distinction based on the location of the injured persons. A court will no longer be able to subscribe to the Vreeland approach that the injured person must be "underneath" the aircraft. Second, the addition of "operational" before "control" serves as a further bar to arguments that certain types of activities by owners, lessors or secured parties – other than operation of the aircraft – could be deemed "control." 

The amendment furthers the full purpose and original objectives of Congress in enacting a statute limiting liability for financiers, owners and long-term lessors4 of aircraft. The amendment ensures a uniformity of result by confirming that in all instances the pre-emptive scope of the statute is very broad, subject only to the express limitation of "actual possession or operational control."   

Notes

1 H.R. 302, Pub.L. 115-254, Oct. 5, 2018, 132 Stat 3186.

2 See, e.g., Matei v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 35 F.3d 1142 (7th Cir. 1994) (predecessor statute to 49 U.S.C. §44112 and Illinois bailment law precluded liability against aircraft owner because owner did not retain possession or control of aircraft and did not have knowledge of alleged defects); In re Lawrence W. Inlow Accident, 2001 WL 331625 (S.D. Ind. Feb. 7, 2001) (49 U.S.C. §44112 precluded liability of sublessor of helicopter following death of passenger hit in head with rotor while disembarking); Mangini v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 2005 WL 3624483 (Conn. Super. Dec. 7, 2005) (49 U.S.C. §44112 pre-empted negligence claims on behalf of deceased passenger against owner whose aircraft made emergency landing and crashed); Esheva v. Siberia Airlines, 499 F. Supp. 2d 493, 499 n.4 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) (stating indictathat aircraft lessor would be "absolutely immune for such liability in the United States" for claims of derivative liability brought on behalf of passengers of airplane that crashed); Escobar v. Nevada Helicopter Leasing LLC, 2016 WL 3962805 (D. Haw. July 21, 2016); Lu v. Star Marianas Air, Inc., 2015 WL 2265464 (D.N.Mar.I. May 12, 2015). 

3See Vreeland v. Ferrer, 71 So. 3d 70 (Fla. 2011), reh'g denied (Sept. 13, 2011), cert denied, 132 S. Ct. 1557 (U.S. 2012); see also Storie v. Southfield Leasing, Inc., 282 N.W.2d 417 (Mich. Ct. App. 1979), aff'd sub nomSexton v. Ryder Truck Rental, Inc. 320 N.W. 843 (1982). 

4 49 U.S.C. §44112(a) defines "lessor" as "a person leasing for at least 30 days a civil aircraft, aircraft engine, or propeller."

This article was originally published by Holland & Knight on October 31, 2018.