Ballenger v. Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, et al
OPINION AND ORDER that defendant Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation's 123 MOTION for Judgment on the Pleadings is denied as further set out in the order. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 11/3/2011. (dmn)
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE
MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, NORTHERN DIVISION
ANN L. BALLENGER,
individually and as
Administratrix of the
Estate of Thomas
Ballenger, deceased, and
MARY ANNA WOEPPEL,
CORPORATION, a foreign
Corporation, et al.,
CIVIL ACTION NO.
OPINION AND ORDER
In this products-liability litigation, plaintiffs Ann
L. Ballenger and Mary Anna Woeppel have sued defendant
theories of design defect, negligence, and failure to
Jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1332
pleadings on federal-preemption grounds, arguing that
federal law occupies the field of aviation regulation and
displaces state-tort remedies (Doc. No. 123).
reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.
Standard of Review
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), judgment
judgment as a matter of law.”
Ortega v. Christian, 85
F.3d 1521, 1524 (11th Cir. 1996).
“A motion for judgment
on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is subject to the same
standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).”
Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008).
On January 4, 2009, the plaintiffs’ decedent and
eight others boarded a Sikorsky helicopter bound for an
oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
takeoff, the helicopter suffered a catastrophic failure
due to a hawk colliding with the windshield.
crashed in swampy terrain, killing all but one aboard.
The plaintiffs contend that faults in the helicopter’s
windshield and throttle design caused the crash.
Under the Supremacy Clause, federal law trumps state
Congress can preempt state law in three ways:
See Cliff v. Payco General American Credits,
preemption, which occurs “when federal regulation in a
reasonably infer that Congress left no room for the
states to supplement it.”
complaint raises only state-law claims, it is entitled to
See Sikorsky’s Reply, Doc.
judgment as a matter of law.
No. 145, at 5 n.3 (“[T]he fact of the matter is defendant
relies on ‘field preemption.’”).
Sikorsky notes that
federal law prescribes detailed and comprehensive safety
regulations for air carriers. See 49 U.S.C. § 44701(a)(1)
aircraft in air commerce by prescribing minimum standards
§ 29.1141 (prescribing rules for throttle controls).
According to Sikorsky, there is clear “Congressional
intent to centralize air safety authority with the FAA.”
Sikorsky’s Brief, Doc. No. 124, at 28.
To be sure, aviation regulation gravitates toward a
uniform system of governance.
See Northwest Airlines,
Inc. v. Minnesota, 322 U.S. 292, 303 (1944) (Jackson, J.,
responsibility for regulating air commerce.
control is intensive and exclusive.
Planes do no wander
about in the sky like vagrant clouds.”).
practical reality and legal background, the prevailing
rule in the federal courts of appeals favors preemption.
See Goodspeed Airport LLC v. East Haddam Inland Wetlands
& Watercourses Comm’n, 634 F.3d 206 (2d Cir. 2011);
Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464 (9th Cir.
2007); Greene v. B.F. Goodrich Avionics Systems, Inc.,
Airlines, Inc., 181 F.3d 363 (3d Cir. 1999); French v.
Pan Am Express, Inc., 869 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1989).
But, as plaintiffs point out, the Eleventh Circuit
Court of Appeals has found against preemption in the
field of aviation.
In Public Health Trust of Dade Cty.,
Fla. v. Lake Aircraft, Inc., 992 F.2d 291 (11th Cir.
1993), a passenger was injured when his seaplane struck
a submerged rock during takeoff.
The passenger claimed
that a design defect in the seat enhanced his injuries.
Id. at 292.
In finding against preemption, the Eleventh Circuit
relied, in part, on Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505
U.S. 504 (1992), which espoused a rule that “Congress’
enactment of a provision defining the pre-emptive reach
of a statute implies that matters beyond that reach are
Id. at 517.
The appellate court found
it significant that the preemption clause in the Airline
Trust, 992 F.2d at 295.
Thus, the court found that the
plaintiff’s “design defect claims [were] outside the preemptive reach of [the ADA].”
(“[T]his Court may not consider itself bound by Public
Sikorsky contends that the Supreme
See, e.g., Geier v. American Honda
Motor Co., Inc., 529 U.S. 861, 873 (2000) (“[T]he express
burden’ against [implied] pre-emption.”); Freightliner
Corp. v. Myrick, 514 U.S. 280, 289 (1995) (“At best,
Cipollone supports an inference that an express preemption clause forecloses implied pre-emption; it does
not establish a rule.”).
As Sikorsky points out, one
circuit court recently recognized the Supreme Court’s
rejection of Cipollone and narrowed its prior holdings
that were contrary to preemption.
See US Airways, Inc.
v. O’Donnell, 627 F.3d 1318, 1325-27 (10th Cir. 2010)
(finding preemption of state regulations, but leaving
state tort remedies intact).
Similarly, a district court
within the Eleventh Circuit has questioned Public Health
Corp., 2011 WL 679932, *5 (M.D. Fla. Feb. 16, 2011)
(“Public Health Trust remains good law. . . . If the
question were presented today, the Eleventh Circuit might
very well reach a different conclusion.”).
This court agrees that, if the Eleventh Circuit were
impression today, it may decide in favor of preemption.
precedent on mere speculation. Cf. Rodriguez de Quijas v.
Shearson/American Express, Inc., 490 U.S. 477, 484 (1989)
(“If a precedent of this Court has direct application in
a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some
other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should
follow the case which directly controls, leaving to this
Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.”).
In fact, at the recent pretrial conference in this case,
counsel for Sikorsky conceded that, despite the argument
Sikorsky made in its brief, this court has no choice but
With this concession, the court concludes
that, because the plaintiffs’ state-law claims do not
airline rates, routes or services, they are
not preempted by federal law.*
Accordingly, it is ORDERED that defendant Sikorsky
pleadings (Doc. No. 123) is denied.
DONE, this the 3rd day of November, 2011.
/s/ Myron H. Thompson
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
The plaintiffs also make two procedural arguments.
They contend that Sikorsky violated the scheduling order
by filing its motion after the deadline for briefs
pertaining to jurisdiction and choice of law.
Sikorsky’s Rule 12(c) motion falls within the deadline
for dispositive motions under the amended scheduling
order (Doc. No. 117).
The plaintiffs further argue that Sikorsky should be
judicially estopped from making its preemption argument
because it took an inconsistent position in the United
States District Court for the Eastern District of
Louisiana. “Judicial estoppel is an equitable doctrine
invoked at a court’s discretion, designed to protect the
integrity of the judicial process.”
Leasing, Inc. v. Institute of London Underwriters, 430
F.3d 1326, 1335 (11th Cir. 2005). The court declines to
exercise its discretion to preclude Sikorsky from making
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