Industry Giants Look For Loopholes But Are Blocked By Experienced Tennessee Aviation Attorneys


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles—Aviation Lawyers Blazing The Trail On Preemption


As aviation attorneys, our practice plays an important role in keeping the airways safe for passengers, crew, and individuals on the ground as well.  One of the most important parts of our practice involves keeping the tort ball in our court, so that we can bring negligence causes of action against responsible parties when their negligent acts cause harm to others.  In this context, because aviation is so intricately tied to and governed by federal law, the issue of federal preemption is one we must constantly deal with.  As it turns out, our efforts on this front are also trailblazing the way for other developing areas of the law.

I saw this firsthand in a trucking case we are handling that recently took us to at least five different states in a two week time period.  As we found ourselves in the middle of Kansas, I thought of John Candy and Steve Martin in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, when Steve Martin’s character says:  “Are you saying I could be stuck in Witchita?” to which John Candy responds, “I’m saying you are stuck in Witchita.”

While I was soon able to escape Kansas with nothing more than a bad case of indigestion from the local hamburger joint where we ate lunch, I soon discovered that Kansas was not the only thing tying our trucking case to the “Planes” aspect of the movie.  As it turns out, one of the defendants in the case would soon attempt to use provisions of Federal Aviation law to gain a quick dismissal of their trucking defendant from the case.

The defendant in this case, one of the largest global third-party logistics companies in the country, relied upon language in the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”) in bringing a FRCP 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.  Under the preemption provision of 49 U.S.C. § 14501(c), generally a state may not pass laws related to “a price, route, or service” of a motor carrier, broker, or freight forwarder with regard to the transportation of property.  Thus, our trucking defendant was trying to use federal aviation law to preempt our state-law tort claim and have our claim dismissed.

Fortunately, we were prepared to draw from aviation precedent under the similar provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act applicable to air carriers, which prohibits states from passing laws related to “price, route, or service” of an air carrier that provides air transportation.  49 U.S.C. § 41713.

The defendant in our trucking case essentially argued that as a broker, it provided a “service” and that the manner it did business created “efficiencies” enabling the defendant “to provide an economic benefit to the ultimate consumer of the goods it brokers by lowering the cost of doing business.”  The defendant relied heavily upon the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case of Rowe v. New Hampshire Motor Transport Ass’n, 552 U.S. 370 (2008) in contending that state regulations, including non-economic regulations, that regulate a company’s activities impermissibly substitute a “government command” for “competitive market forces in determining…the services that [the] carrier will provide.”  Rowe, 552 U.S. at 372.   The defendant was essentially arguing that any state interference in the way it did business was related to the “service” it provides and therefore preempted.  If accepted, this effectively would have allowed a defendant to do whatever it wanted to do—or not do—no matter the resulting danger to people on the roadways, in the name of efficiency and cheaper transportation.  Fortunately, the district court saw through this.

Our preemption argument began by pointing out that preemption analysis begins with “the assumption that the historic police powers of the States are not superseded by…federal act unless that [is] the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.”  Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, 555 U.S. 70, 76 (2008).  In this context, safety has traditionally been within the States’ police powers that are presumed not to be preempted by federal law.  Hillsborough County v. Automated Medical Laboriatories, 741 U.S. 707, 715 (1985).  As such, courts have consistently declined to find preemption of state tort law involving personal injury.  {Trinidad v. American Airlines, Inc., 932 F. Supp. 521 (S.D.N.Y. 1996); O’Hern V. Delta Airlines, 838 F. Supp. 1264 (N.D. Ill. 1993); Rodriguez v. American Airlines, Inc., 886 F. Supp. 967 (Dist. P.R. 1995); Margolis v. United Airlines, Inc., 811 F. Supp. 318 (E.D. Mich. 1993); Stewart v. American Airlines, Inc., 776 F. Supp. 1194 (S.D. Tex. 1991); Stone v. Frontier Airlines, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 2d 28 (D. Mass 2002).}

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