Florida Supreme Court Deepens Split of Authority on Meaning of Federal Limitation of Liability for Aircraft Owners and Lessors

In a recent dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Congress for writing “fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation.” Although Justice Scalia was referring to the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, he could easily have been talking about the “Limitation of Liability” provision in the federal aviation statute, 49 U.S.C. § 44112.

Section 44112 provides that an aircraft owner or lessor is liable “for personal injury, death, or property loss or damage on land or water” only when the aircraft that caused the injury “is in the actual possession or control” of the owner or lessor. In Vreeland v. Ferrer, No. SC10-694 (Fla. July 8, 2011), the Florida Supreme Court interpreted the scope of the limitation of liability and held that it only encompasses injuries, death, or property damages occurring on land or water. Disagreeing with the intermediate appellate court in the same case and with prior decisions of other courts, the court in Vreeland held that Section 44112 does not provide immunity for an injury or death occurring in the air, as opposed to on the ground. The court thus deepened a split of authority on one of many “fuzzy” aspects of the federal limitation of liability for aircraft owners and lessors.

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