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AOPA Supreme Court filing sparks interest in legal communityAOPA Supreme Court filing sparks interest in legal community

The legal community is taking note of AOPA’s recent friend of the court filing asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving aviation product liability.

In an article published on Lexology, well-respected law firm Cozen O’Connor called AOPA’s amicus curiae filing “notable.”

“The Supreme Court grants approximately 1 percent of all certiorari petitions, but AOPA’s support for the manufacturers may increase the prospects for Supreme Court review,” the law firm wrote, adding that the FAA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association have filed similar briefs.

At issue is Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., which involves a 2005 plane crash in North Carolina following an engine failure. The pilot was fatally injured and his spouse filed a lawsuit against the engine’s manufacturer, claiming that the failure was the result of a design defect in the carburetor. In 2014, a U.S. District Court found that there was no design defect in the carburetor because the engine was certified and approved by the FAA. But in April of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed that decision. It found that the FAA’s federal regulatory role did not preempt state law standards of care in aviation product liability actions. It also found that the FAA’s certification and approval of the engine did not eliminate the possibility of a design defect. That ruling allows juries to hold a manufacturer to state design standards, even if the manufacturer satisfied all FAA regulations and the FAA approved and certified the product.

“In effect, the appeals court ruling would allow juries to retroactively set design standards in aviation product liability cases, forcing manufacturers to meet dozens of potentially contradictory state requirements for every product they produce. Not only would that be prohibitively expensive, it would be bad for safety,” said AOPA General Counsel Ken Mead. “The FAA was created to regulate aviation, and it should have the final authority to set standards.”

In its article, Cozen O’Connor noted that AOPA’s involvement, as a representative of the pilot community, alongside that of manufacturers could make it more likely that the Supreme Court will consider the case.

“Supreme Court observers rarely predict with certainty when the Court will grant a petition. Still, given the circuit split, the potential widespread impact, the parties involved, and the amicus curiae briefs filed, the prospects for review of the Sikkelee case seems to have increased. The future of aviation product liability surely depends on what the Supreme Court will do next."

In addition to the attention AOPA’s filing has garnered in the legal community, it has received coverage in a wide range of aviation publications as well as in Politico.

“This is an issue with far-reaching implications for the transportation industry. The outcome could affect everyone who flies, whether as an airline passenger or a recreational pilot,” said Mead. “Congress gave the FAA the responsibility to certify new designs as well as monitor, identify, and address any safety issues that may arise after an aircraft has been approved and certified. That authority needs to remain intact.”

Elizabeth Tennyson

Elizabeth A Tennyson

Senior Director of Communications
AOPA Senior Director of Communications Elizabeth Tennyson is an instrument-rated private pilot who first joined AOPA in 1998.
Topics: Advocacy, Aircraft Regulation, AOPA

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