Airlines are no strangers to lengthy laws and regulations. They must comply with the masses of regulations set forth and enforced by multiple government agencies, and if they run international flights, they must also familiarize themselves with the Montreal Convention.
While many of the laws that apply to airlines set forth additional restrictions, some offer industry-specific benefits. Specifically, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (ADA) offers air carriers some protection against lawsuits. The limits of those protections have, however, been a matter of debate over the years. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals lent its voice to the debate with a recent opinion tied to a personal injury case.
Kelly Day was a passenger aboard a SkyWest flight from Oregon to Texas who maintained that she was injured when a flight attendant crashed a beverage cart into her. She claimed the collision caused significant damage to her shoulder. She filed claims for negligence and breach of contract:
The negligence claim alleged that SkyWest and its employees demonstrated negligence in several ways:
- Failing to watch out for passengers while pushing the beverage cart
- Pushing the beverage cart too quickly
- Failing to warn passengers that the beverage cart was heading down the aisle
The breach of contract claim alleged that SkyWest failed to maintain its contracted duties to provide “safe carriage and transport from her origination to her destination.” It also maintained that SkyWest failed to “exercise professional, careful, and safe conduct and judgment.”
SkyWest sought to have the claims dismissed. In the district court, it argued that the ADA preempted the claims filed according to Utah state law. It also argued that the contract claim was redundant with the negligence claim and failed to cite any specific provision that SkyWest had breached.
Despite a number of contrary rulings in other jurisdictions, the district court agreed with SkyWest and held that the ADA preempted Day’s claims. The court noted the other arguments for dismissal but didn’t address them. In the end, this was a notable win for SkyWest, and the American Bar Association made note of it in its 2021 Update on Preemption Defenses Available to Airlines in Civil Litigation.
Overturned in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals
SkyWest’s victory in the district court was short-lived. The dismissal was later overturned by the Court of Appeals and remanded back to trial. The appellate court’s opinion offered several notable insights and lessons:
- SkyWest bore the burden to prove preemption. To prove express preemption, SkyWest needed to show that Congress defined “explicitly the extent to which its enactments pre-empt state law.”
- The statutory language most in question was the provision that read, “a State […] may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier […]” As such, much of the debate centered on whether the claims were “related to” the air carrier’s “service.”
- The Court of Appeals cited prior cases that established an airline’s “provision of food and drink” could count as a “service.”
- The key phase was “related to.” While the district court found that Day’s claims were “unquestionably” related to SkyWest’s beverage service, the Court of Appeals noted that the Supreme Court had found similarities between the ADA’s use of “related to” and the phrase “relate to” that appears in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals followed the Supreme Court’s guidance for when another law or claim ran afoul of the “related to” standard. One, if the state’s laws act “immediately and exclusively” upon the federal law. Two, if the federal law is “essential to the [state] law’s operation.”
- In other words, it was not enough for the claims to address matters of the airline’s business. Instead, they had to impose upon the business concerns expressly preempted by the ADA. The subject matter is important, and the Court of Appeals noted that the ADA focuses on economic deregulation.
- The ADA is notably devoid of remedies for anyone injured by airline “services.” At the same time, air carriers must carry insurance to pay for damages to anyone injured by the “operation or maintenance” of their aircraft. The Court of Appeals saw these points as further evidence that the ADA did not aim to preempt state injury laws and leave passengers with no recourse.
Given these points, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADA did not preempt Day’s claims. It noted that its ruling brought the Tenth Circuit in line with its sister circuits that had already found that injury claims arising from an “employee’s failure to exercise due care” were not “related to” the ADA’s deregulation of “price, route, or service.”
Instead, the Court of Appeals noted that the ADA prevents state law from imposing on general “economic decisions” about providing beverages at all. Should SkyWest provide beverages? Should they include alcoholic beverages? Should they charge? How much? These are concerns where the Court of Appeals said the ADA could preempt state law.
It’s not just what you say, but how you say it
Notably, SkyWest may still win the case or see it dismissed again back in the district court. However, their legal team may want to look closely at the opinion. The Court of Appeals noted several times that SkyWest had failed provide impactful citation or arguments:
- “SkyWest suggests its prices, routes, and services could also be affected by the economic impact of a damages award […] but the cases SkyWest cites to support this argument are inapposite, and SkyWest does not explain how a damages award would have a forbidden effect[.]”
- “Furthermore, SkyWest does not point to any uniform national policies that would be impeded […] Although SkyWest asserts that different states have different standards of care, it does not cite to a single case to support this proposition[.]”
- “We note that SkyWest’s brief fails to cite to a single case in which a personal-injury claim was held to be preempted by the ADA.”
- “On appeal, SkyWest addresses [the plaintiff’s failure to identify a specific contractual provision that SkyWest had breached] on just one page of its appellate brief, in which it fails to cite to a single case or discuss a single legal principle.”
- “Finally, SkyWest argues that we can affirm the dismissal of Day’s contract claim because it is duplicative of her tort claim […] The parties briefed this issue on appeal, but only in a few pages of each of their respective briefs.”
The lesson airlines can learn from these comments is simple: Legal teams need to do their homework before they take their cases to court. SkyWest might prevail on some of these arguments when it returns to the district court, but it faltered when it had the chance to put the questions before the Court of Appeals.
Back to the district court
The Tenth Circuit’s decision wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. In fact, it followed in keeping with prior decisions made in other Circuit Courts of Appeal. However, it is notable because it crosses out one of the preemption defenses that airlines briefly saw as a possibility.
Instead, the decision may be more notable as a record of missed opportunities. SkyWest had opportunities in both the district court and the Court of Appeals to argue for dismissal on several grounds. After the district court chose not to address the other arguments for dismissal, SkyWest failed to provide the Court of Appeals sufficient reason to hear them. Because SkyWest was unable to make more of its chances, it must now make its arguments all over again.