Ninth Circuit Addresses Federal Preemption

In a recent decision, Gilstrap v. United Airlines, Inc.,¹ the Ninth Circuit addressed the scope of preemption of the Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”) of 1986, which is an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act (“FAA”) and was enacted to extend certain federal prohibitions to air carriers relating to discrimination against the disabled. The Court held that where the FAA has pervasively regulated a particular field of aviation safety and commerce, those regulations will establish the applicable standard of care, but not the other elements of a negligence claim or the remedies available to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff in Gilstrap alleged that she requested wheelchair assistance from the airline because she was unable to walk long distances or stand in line due to osteoarthritis and various degenerative back conditions. She further alleged that the airline failed to provide the requested wheelchair services, forced her to stand in line, ridiculed her, and accused her of exaggerating her disability. Plaintiff claimed that, as the result of the airline’s failure to provide her with adequate wheelchair assistance, she sustained severe pain, necessitating an epidural injection, and also suffered emotional distress.

Plaintiff brought several causes of action against the airline under California tort law, including negligence, negligent misrepresentation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Although she did not attempt to bring a private cause of action under the ACAA,² plaintiff cited to the ACAA in her Complaint as evidence of the standard of care for her state law negligence cause of action. Plaintiff also brought one additional federal cause of action for violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The district court dismissed plaintiff’s Complaint on the grounds that her claims were completely preempted by the ACAA. The district court first concluded that Congress intended the FAA administrative enforcement scheme to be the exclusive remedy for violations of the ACAA, and that to allow state personal injury lawsuits against airlines for failure to provide services to those with disabilities would conflict with that Congressional intent. The district court also concluded that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the comprehensive ACAA regulations pertaining to wheelchair assistance and dismissed plaintiff’s claim for violation of the ADA on the ground that that statute expressly excluded airports from its application.

After a lengthy discussion of the history of the ACAA and its enforcement scheme, as well as prior Ninth Circuit decisions interpreting FAA preemption of state law personal injury claims, the Court of Appeals concluded that the FAA, which includes the ACAA, preempts state law standards of care with respect to circumstances under which airlines must provide assistance to passengers with disabilities in moving through the airport, and thus the FAA may be dispositive of the “duty” issue in a negligence claim. However, the Court also held that the ACAA does not preempt any state remedies that may be available when airlines violate those standards.

The Court of Appeals explained that in evaluating whether a given personal injury case is preempted by the FAA, it first must be determined whether the particular area of aviation commerce and safety implicated by the lawsuit is governed by “pervasive federal regulations.” If so, then any applicable state standards of care are preempted. Even in those areas, however, the scope of field preemption extends only to the standard of care; state law still governs the other negligence elements (breach, causation and damages), as well as the choice and availability of remedies.

Applying the above framework to the plaintiff’s case, the Court of Appeals held that the FAA, and specifically the ACAA, pervasively regulates the instances in which carriers must provide wheelchair assistance, and thus preempted the standard of care applicable to plaintiff’s state law causes of action. However, the Court held that the plaintiff could rely on California tort law to prove the other elements of her state law claims, and remanded the case for further proceedings. The Court also noted that it was unclear whether a court applying California law would hold that the state law provides a tort remedy for the largely dignitary injuries alleged by the plaintiff.

The Court of Appeals also held that the ACAA would not preempt state law claims involving how airline agents interact with passengers with disabilities who request assistance in moving through the airport, and noted that the plaintiff’s causes of action for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress would be decided entirely under California law.

The Court upheld the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims under the ADA, on the grounds that the statute explicitly excludes airports from the definition of “public accommodations” falling within the ambit of that statute.

Gilstrap clarifies previous Ninth Circuit case law, which had been unsettled regarding the FAA’s scope of preemption. However, Gilstrap could be problematic for airlines because it appears to allow personal injury plaintiffs to bring state law claims that at least were arguably preempted by the FAA under the Ninth Circuit’s old interpretations. This decision means that cases implicating the FAA will remain in state court, unless an alternative basis for federal jurisdiction exists.


¹Docket No. 2:10-cv-06131 (9th Cir. Mar. 12, 2013) (Berzon, C.J.).

²The Ninth Circuit has not decided whether or not the ACAA provides a private cause of action in addition to its administrative enforcement scheme, and declined to address that issue in the Gilstrap decision.