Airlines seem to be a magnet for bad news these days. Ever increasing fuel costs, bankruptcies on the rise, and now, according to the 3rd Circuit, the need to comply with state tort law wherever an airline lands its planes. In Elaasaad v. Independence Air Inc. and Delta Airlines Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has just determined that federal law does not prempt state law when it comes to the disembarkation of passengers. Once that plane has come to a full stop, seatbelts can be unbuckled but the airlines better understand state tort law.
The simple rule is that where there is both a federal law and state law on point, federal law prempts state law. However, the skies are not always blue and clear, and there is more than one gray cloud that the courts have encountered in making preemption determinations. Elaasaad is an example of the federal courts having to examine the current statutes and case law interpreting the statutes, and still further clarify when the federal statute applies. Here, the court decided that once the plane has come to a complete stop, none of the federal statutes are applicable and thus state tort law will apply.
So what are the implications? Airlines will have to comply with the tort laws of each individual state where they land their planes. When passengers are injured while leaving an aircraft, the law of the destination will determine the standard of care the airline must apply. This will make handling claims increasingly difficult as airlines will not be able to apply a uniform standard to claims, but instead will have to rely on the locus of each injury.
Special thanks to Alison Weintraub for her contributions to this post. If you have any questions, please contact Bob Cosgrove at firstname.lastname@example.org.