June 29, 2009
Document: Federal Law Does Not Pre-empt the Field of Aviation Safety Even After Abdullah
In 1999, the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in Abdullah v. American Airlines that the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 impliedly pre-empts “the entire field of aviation safety” and displaces state law as the applicable standard of care in aviation tort cases. This novel opinion created a split in the federal circuits that the Supreme Court has not yet resolved.
This paper explains why Abdullah was wrongly decided and why implied pre-emption should not be used to deprive air crash victims and their families of their traditional state law negligence and gross negligence causes of action for compensatory and punitive damages. It also tells the story of the courts that have refused to follow Abdullah down the path of implied pre-emption of aviation safety, encouraging other courts to follow suit. The bottom line is if state law standards of care are to be replaced by federal standards in aviation tort cases not otherwise governed by federal law, an Act of Congress that either expressly or clearly and manifestly pre-empts state law is legally required, and the 1958 statute by no means qualifies.