U.S. District Court Defines the Federal Standard of Care Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958

We have previously reported on developments regarding federal preemption of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and corresponding regulations.1  In the context of the Continental Connection Flight 3407 (operated by Colgan Air) accident on February 12, 2009 in Buffalo, New York, both the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York and the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Erie County, have rendered decisions holding that indeed the Act and its regulations provide “an overarching general standard of care” that preempts state law standards of care.  The precise nature of that federal standard of care, however, remained unclear in the Western District of New York.

The matter was recently taken up by Judge Skretny of the Western District of New York on plaintiffs’ motion seeking to compel discovery relating to Colgan Air’s so-called business practices, namely pilot hiring, training, selection and supervision.2

Judge Skretny began by noting the guidelines of permissible discovery, i.e., that a party may obtain discovery that is relevant to any claim or defense, and a matter is relevant if it may lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.  While broad, the scope of discovery is not unfettered.  District courts weigh the duplicative, cumulative and burdensome nature of the discovery sought.

As noted above, plaintiffs sought discovery relating to Colgan’s pilot hiring, training, selection and supervision.  The airline objected on the basis of relevance, with the crux of the argument based in the doctrine of federal preemption.  Colgan argued that only discovery requests that seek information reasonably related to alleged violations of specific federal regulations are appropriate.  Plaintiffs argued that if no general standard of care applies to the airline’s business practices, all airlines will be absolved of liability for their acts of negligence, carelessness or recklessness so long as they complied with specific regulations.  Plaintiffs further argued that such a general standard of care is found in 14 C.F.R. §91.13, which provides in relevant part:

(a)  Aircraft operations for the purpose of air navigation. No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

The airline countered that §91.13 relates to in-flight operations as well as other physical movement to the aircraft, or the manipulation of the controls of an aircraft such as starting or running an aircraft engine.  To the extent that §91.13 provides a general standard of care, that standard of care establishes a carrier’s duty in the absence of a specific regulation covering the in-flight and other operational conduct at issue.  Section 91.13 must have a limited role in determining the federal standard of care under the 1958 Act, otherwise its application as a catchall standard of care would completely deflate federal preemption.

Ultimately, Judge Skretny agreed with the airline and held that §91.13 provides a general standard of care in the absence of specific federal regulation as initiating, conducting and terminating a flight, including the piloting of aircraft. Because plaintiffs’ negligent hiring, training selection and supervision claims fall outside the operation of aircraft, §91.13 cannot provide the standard of care for those claims. Judge Skrenty specifically declined to hold that §91.13 provides a general standard of care governing all aspects of air safety.

Addressing plaintiffs’ argument that such a reading of the Act’s preemptive effect would absolve the airline of liability, Judge Skretny quoted Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Erie County, in determining that the Act provides an extensive scheme of regulation regarding air safety and including pilot hiring, training and supervision.  Contrary to taking away plaintiffs’ remedies, preemption simply replaces New York’s “reasonably prudent person” standard of care with a federal standard of care.  Federal preemption of state standards of care neither eliminates state remedies nor absolves an airline of liability; rather, as Judge Skretny stated, “it avoids an unmanageable patchwork of potentially 50 different state standards.”

1 “New York State Court Holds State Law Standards Preempted by Federal Action Act of 1958,” Condon & Forsyth LLP Client Bulletin (October 2012); “Second Circuit Declares Field Preemption Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958,” Condon & Forsyth LLP Client Alert (March 2011).

2 See In re: Air Crash Near Clarence Center, New York, on Feb. 12, 2009, No. 09-md-2085 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 8, 2013).