New York State Court Holds State Law Standards Preempted By Federal Aviation Act of 1958

A recent Memorandum Decision by Justice Frederick J. Marshall of the Supreme Court of the State of New York (Erie County) granted the motion of Colgan Air and its Co-Defendant and parent company, Pinnacle Airlines Corp., seeking application of a federal standard of care to Plaintiffs’ claims arising out of the February 12, 2009 accident of Continental Connection Flight 3407, operated by Colgan Air.¹ Specifically, Defendants argued that that the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (“the 1958 Act”) and federal regulations preempt the New York “reasonably prudent person” negligence standard of care. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York had previously ruled in Defendants’ favor on this issue in parallel litigation arising out of the Flight 3407 accident. Justice Marshall’s Decision, however, is the first New York State court to address the issue.

In opposition to the motion, Plaintiffs argued that an ordinary negligence standard of care should apply to their claims, that federal regulations only prescribe minimum safety standards, and that state standards do not conflict or interfere with the federal regulations.

Defendants argued, among other things, that the application of state standards of care would interfere with the federal statutory scheme and could lead to air carriers having to comply with dozens of different standards of care.

In evaluating these arguments, the court examined federal preemption law under which preemption may be express or implied. Express preemption arises when a federal statute expressly directs that state law be displaced; implied preemption exists in two contexts: (1) conflict preemption and (2) field preemption. Conflict preemption exists where it is impossible for a party to comply with both state and federal law, and when state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the full purposes and objectives of Congress or a government agency. Field preemption occurs when federal regulations so completely occupy a field that it is reasonable to infer Congress’s intent to exclusively regulate the field.

Justice Marshall found that “the pervasiveness and completeness of the federal regulatory scheme leaves no room for state standards of care” and that the preempted field is “air safety.” Furthermore, there could be “no question” that the allegations in Plaintiffs’ complaints, i.e., the pilot’s alleged negligence and Colgan’s and Pinnacle’s alleged negligent hiring, training and retaining of the pilot, “fall squarely within the broad field of air safety.”

The court also rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the 1958 Act cannot have preemptive effect because it contains a “saving clause,” which states “a remedy under this part is in addition to any other remedies provided by law.” The court interpreted the saving clause as preserving state remedies, but noted that there is no precedent for the proposition that the 1958 Act “saves” state standards of care.

Succinctly stated, the court held that the intricate web of regulations left no room for state law standards of care, regardless of whether the standard is consistent with the federal regulations. Significantly, the court stated that case law demonstrates “that the doctrine of implied field preemption, applied so as to negate state standards of care in the field of air safety, may prevail despite the possibility of adverse consequences to a plaintiff’s claim.”


¹ In re: Air Crash Near Clarence Center, New York on February 12, 2009, slip op. at 2, Index No. 13176/2009 (Sup. Ct., Erie Cty. Sept. 21, 2012).