Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc – Case Brief Summary (Federal Court)

In Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc. (3d Cir. 1999) 181 F.3d 363, passengers injured during turbulence filed lawsuits alleging that the pilot and the flight crew were negligent in failing to take reasonable precautions to avoid turbulence and failing to give warnings so that passengers could fasten their seatbelts and protect themselves.

The lawsuits were filed in the Virgin Islands and the cases were tried under territorial common law standards of care. The Third Circuit reversed, finding an implied field preemption. That is, the court found that "because the legislative history of the FAA and its judicial interpretation indicate that Congress's intent was to federally regulate aviation safety, . . . any state or territorial standards of care are federally preempted." (Abdullah, supra, 181 F.3d at p. 371.)

Abdullah relied on the history and intent of the 1958 Act, finding that "Congress found the creation of a single, uniform system of regulation vital to increasing air safety." ( Id. at p. 368.)

Abdullah did not base its holding on the preemption clause of the ADA, which it characterized as "an economic deregulation statute which is inapposite to resolving preemption questions relating to the FAA and air safety." ( Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc., supra, 181 F.3d at p. 372.)

Abdullah reasoned that the ADA concerned only competition and that "Airlines compete against one another by attracting passengers through the rates, routes, and services they offer. Congress did not want the states to hamper this competition by their own regulation of these areas. Safe operations, however, are a necessity for all airlines. Whether or not to conform to safety standards is not an option for airlines in choosing a mode of competition. For this reason, safety of an airline's operations would not appear to fall within the ambit of the ADA and its procompetition preemption clause." (Id. at p. 373.)

Further, Abdullah found that cases such as Hodges were based on an application of the maxim "to express one is to exclude the other" to the ADA's preemption clause, a line of reasoning which Abdullah found faulty, since the maxim cannot override the clear intent of Congress.

Finally, Abdullah ruled that "state and territorial tort remedies can coexist with federal standards of care for air safety," so that the plaintiffs could proceed with their actions, but only under a federal standard. ( Abdullah v. American Airlines Inc., supra, 181 F.3d at p. 376.)

Abdullah suggested that the federal standard was found in a regulation which provides that " 'No person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.' " ( Id. at p. 371; 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(a) (2001).)