Eastern District of Washington Denies Winglet Manufacturer’s Motion to Dismiss and Rejects Arguments for Implied Preemption Following Fatal Crash

Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP

Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLPPlaintiffs filed wrongful death claims in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, under Washington’s product liability statute, as a result of a fatal crash of a Cessna Citation following the installation of Tamarack Aerospace Group, Inc.’s (“Tamarack”) FAA-approved ATLAS winglets. Plaintiffs’ Complaint listed 34 ways in which they believed the winglets fell short of reasonable safeness as set forth in the statute. Tamarack moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Tamarack argued the plaintiffs’ claims were impliedly preempted because the FAA had approved the winglets at issue. Tamarack further argued that because the FAA approved the winglets, the doctrines of implied field and conflict preemption precluded Plaintiffs from bringing their state law claims generally alleging the winglets were not reasonably safe. According to Tamarack, subjecting the winglets to scrutiny under Washington State law would infringe upon the FAA’s authority and expertise in certification of aviation products.

The court rejected Tamarack’s preemption arguments; first citing Ninth Circuit precedent that permitted aviation product liability claims where “the subject matter is not pervasively regulated by the Federal Aviation Act,” an issue the court could not resolve at this early juncture. The court then adopted the “minimum standards” argument – that FAA regulations merely set a floor, above which manufacturers may need to go to comply with state tort law.

Of note, while the plaintiffs cited the Third Circuit’s Sikkelee II decision, 907 F.3d 701 (3d Cir. 2018), which held that state law products liability claims were not conflict preempted by federal law, this court relied solely on Ninth Circuit precedent in denying Tamarack’s preemption motion, continuing a trend of courts appearing hesitant to cite with approval the Third Circuit’s split 2-1 decision. Further, the court rejected another common plaintiff preemption argument, writing that “dismissal of Plaintiffs' product liability claims at this early stage in the litigation [was not warranted] because Plaintiffs ultimately may proceed with their first causes of action even relying on federal authority for the standard of care.” Thus, the court left open the possibility that federal law can provide workable guidance for determining the applicable standard of care. Davis v. Tamarack Aero Grp. Inc., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7710 (E.D. Wash. Jan. 14, 2021)

*Ashley Evans, a Summer Associate with Schnader and rising 3L at Rutgers Law, contributed invaluable assistance for this article.

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