The recent aviation accident which killed multiple members of a Chicago-area family has drawn attention to the very real dangers of air travel. But when accidents occur in commercial aviation, who has jurisdiction to hold those responsible accountable? As our top-rated Chicago personal injury lawyers explain, that question is actually more complicated than you might think.
The federal government has passed a number of laws, together with related regulations, which usurp the traditional role of the states in deciding questions of tort liability. Our Chicago accident attorneys generally disfavor the federal government’s interference in what should be simple questions of negligence, to be addressed in state courts. In the aviation context, issues of federal “preemption” include application of the Federal Aviation Act and the related Air Carrier Access Act.
The FAA and the ACAA are given broad preemptive effect, known in legal circles as “field preemption,” or the preemption of an entire area of the law. Even the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has previously held that the FAA preempts “the entire field of aviation safety.”
This month, the Third Circuit looked at FAA preemption and its applicability to personal injury accidents on airplanes that occur when an airplane is on the ground and stationary. In Elassaad v. Independence Air Inc., the Third Circuit considered an accident that occurred as a passenger, Elassaad, disembarked from a commercial flight from Boston to Philadelphia. The stairs provided for the passengers to descend had a railing on only one side. Elasaad, who had one leg partially amputated and uses crutches to walk, fell off the unguarded side and hit the pavement with his shoulder, suffering severe injury that required surgery.
The airline argued that the FAA, the ACAA, and other related federal legislation and regulation only require an airline to provide assistance to passengers if the passenger requests it. Elassaad, however, argued that the federal laws were inapplicable and that he should be permitted to sue under Pennsylvania’s state negligence law, which contains no such limitation.
The Third Circuit agreed. It held that the federal laws were intended to apply only to in-air navigation and aircraft operations, and were inapplicable to conduct while the airplane is stationary and on the ground, such as loading and unloading of passengers.
The Third Circuit’s opinion does not decide the merits of Elassaad’s lawsuit against the airline. Instead, it simply holds that the District Court should not have granted summary judgment on his state-law negligence claim as preempted by federal law. This result makes perfect sense: there is no evidence that when passing the FAA and the ACAA, Congress intended to remove all questions of negligence at all connected to air travel from the province of the states. In essence, this simply means that Mr. Elassaad may now have his day in court. The Chicago personal injury attorneys of Passen & Powell wish him the best of luck.
For a free consultation with an experienced Illinois injury lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.