The Third Circuit Court of Appeals Limits Preemption in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has ruled that aviation product liability claims are to be governed by state tort law standards of care, not a federal standard of care, in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp.1  In doing so, the Third Circuit considered, inter alia, its holding in Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc.2 the Federal Aviation Act of 1958,3 and the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), to find that Congress had not intended to preempt aviation products liability claims, including instances where the FAA has issued an aircraft Type Certificate certifying the aircraft as airworthy.

At the outset, the Third Circuit held that Abdullah was not controlling on the issue before it. In Abdullah, the Court ruled that the Act and the FARs impliedly preempted the entire field of aviation safety. In today’s decision, the Third Circuit clarified that holding:


[A]lthough we stated in broad terms that the Federal Aviation Act preempted the ‘field of aviation safety,’ . . . the regulations and decisions we discussed in Abdullah all related to in-air operations . . . and the catch-all standard of care that we held a court ‘must refer to’ applied only to operating, not designing or manufacturing an aircraft.4


Product liability claims, the Court concluded, were not subject to the same “catch-all” standard of care that applied to in-air operations under the FARs.

The Third Circuit went on to hold that there was no evidence of Congressional intent to preempt state law product liability standards of care in the Federal Aviation Act and its attendant FARs. The Court rejected the Federal Aviation Administration’s argument for field preemption of state law standards of care based on what it characterized as the “pervasive statutory framework” under the Act and the FARs. Because “Congress has not created a federal standard of care for persons injured by defective airplanes; and the type certification process cannot as a categorical matter displace the need for compliance in this context with state standards of care,”5 the Third Circuit found that aircraft product liability claims should be governed by state law standards of care.

If you have any questions or would like further information on this subject, please contact Jane M. Sigda.


1  No. 14-4193 (3d Cir. filed April 19, 2016). We discussed the underlying facts of the case, and the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s ruling in our November 20, 2015 Newsletter, “A New Standard of Care? The Third Circuit Considers FAA’s Stance on Preemption of State Law Standards in Design Defect Cases.” The article can be accessed at

2 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999).

Pub. L. No. 85-726, recodified at 49 U.S.C. § 40101 et seq. (2006).

Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., No. 14-4193, slip op. at 17 (3d Cir. filed April 19 2016).

5  Id. at 32.