The Third Circuit Court of Appeals will soon be deciding an issue that could dramatically impact the liabilities aircraft product manufacturers may face.  Specifically, the court will address the question of whether a certificate issued by the FAA precludes design defect claims against aircraft product manufacturers. 

The appeal stems from the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s dismissal of certain product liability claims in Sikkelee v. AVCO Corp.  The district court relied on the 1999 case of Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc., a passenger-injury case against American Airlines, in determining that the claims are preempted by the Federal Aviation Act. 

The FAA’s issuance of a certificate denotes the Administrator’s finding that the product met all applicable requirements.

In Abdullah,  decided in 1999, the Third Circuit held that federal law preempts the state air safety standards for aircraft operators, but state law claims could survive for violations of these federal standards.  The Sikkelee plaintiff sued an aircraft engine manufacturer, claiming that defects in the engine caused a fatal plane crash.  The lower court’s decision in Sikkelee is a significant development because it extends the  holding in Abdullah to a product liability case against an aircraft product manufacturer. Under Sikkelee, the FAA’s issuance of a type certificate to an aircraft product manufacturer satisfies the federal standards of care, precluding a plaintiff from proving a necessary element of a design defect claim as a matter of law.  The Sikkelee court held that the FAA’s issuance of a certificate denotes the Administrator’s finding that the product met all applicable requirements.

If affirmed, Sikkelee not only would conflict with decisions from other Circuits as to the scope of preemption of aviation product liability claims but also could impact product liability cases against aircraft product manufacturers.  This is certainly a case to watch.

Sikkelee v. AVCO Corp., 2014 WL 4447018 (M.D. Pa. Sept. 10, 2014), appeal docketed, No. 14-8120 (3d Cir. Oct. 16, 2014).