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In re September 11th Litigation

July 3, 2007

IN RE SEPTEMBER 11TH LITIGATION


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alvin K. Hellerstein, U.S.D.J.

OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING PUNITIVE AND COMPENSATORY DAMAGES

There are two motions before me in these 9/11 cases seeking recovery for wrongful death and personal injury against the airlines, airport operators, airport security companies, and aircraft manufacturer: (1) a motion to decide whether Plaintiffs may recover punitive damages against these defendants; and (2) a motion to decide whether Pennsylvania law should govern claims for compensatory damages brought by eight plaintiffs who died on board United Airlines Flight 93, when that airplane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

For the reasons stated below, I hold that Plaintiffs may not recover punitive damages, and that the claims for compensatory damages brought by the eight who died on board United Airlines Flight 93 shall be governed by the law of the plaintiff's domicile state.

Background

On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners and made them weapons of mass destruction. The hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower, and United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower, of the World Trade Center in New York, American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon in Virginia, and United Airlines Flight 93 into an open field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The legal successors of those who died, the persons in the World Trade Center and in the Pentagon who were injured, and those who suffered damage to their property or their insurance subrogees, brought lawsuits against the airlines, airport operators, airport security companies, and the aircraft manufacturer having a connection to the four flights, alleging that Defendants' wrongful behavior proximately caused their injuries. Plaintiffs' master complaints for wrongful death and personal injury demanded relief in the form of compensatory damages and punitive damages; the complaints for property damage sought compensatory damages.

In earlier proceedings in these cases, I denied Defendants' motion to dismiss based on their claim of absence of duty to ground victim plaintiffs, see In re September 11 Litig., 280 F. Supp. 2d 279, 289--97 (S.D.N.Y. 2003), and regulated the pretrial proceedings by several case management orders and discovery rulings, see e.g., In re September 11 Litig., 236 F.R.D. 164 (2006). Of the 95 wrongful death and personal injury cases that were filed in this Court on behalf of 96 victims who opted to pursue traditional tort lawsuits in preference to proceedings before the Special Master of the Victim Compensation Fund, 53 cases have settled, one was dismissed, and 41 cases (on behalf of 42 victims) remain.*fn1 Discovery proceedings continue for the cases that remain, and for the property damage claims, slowed by the difficulties of filtering depositions and document production through the Transportation Security Administration to assure against disclosure of Sensitive Security Information. See id. With assistance of the parties, several cases have been identified for trials of the issues of damages, with issues of liability to be tried when discovery of those issues is completed.

In anticipation of such trials, and because of the need to define the scope of potential recoveries, Defendants have moved to strike Plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages, and Plaintiffs have moved, in connection with claims arising from the terrorist-related crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, for a declaration that Pennsylvania law, as the law of the state where the crash occurred, should govern the scope and extent of compensation that a jury may award with respect to those who died aboard that flight. I heard argument on June 14, 2007, and now deliver my rulings.

Discussion

I. Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act

The Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act ("Stabilization Act") creates a federal cause of action for damages arising from, or in connection with, the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, and confers exclusive jurisdiction on the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York to hear such actions. The Act provides aggregate monetary limits of recovery, limiting recoveries against the various aviation defendants to their aggregate insurance coverage. The Act further provides that although the cause of action is federal, the law of the state in which the crash occurred shall be the law for decision, in both its choice of law and its substantive aspects, except to the extent that such law is inconsistent with, or preempted by, federal law. The following excerpts from Section 408 of the Stabilization Act, 49 U.S.C. § 40101 note, set out these provisions.

(a) In General

(1) Liability limited to insurance coverage. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, liability for all claims, whether for compensatory or punitive damages or for contribution or indemnity, arising from the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, against an air carrier, aircraft manufacturer, airport sponsor, or person with a property interest in the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001 . shall not be in an amount greater than the limits of liability insurance coverage maintained by that air carrier, aircraft manufacturer, airport sponsor, or person.

(2) .

(3) Limitations on liability for New York City. Liability for all claims, whether for compensatory or punitive damages or for contribution or indemnity arising from the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of September 11, 2001, against the City of New York shall not ...


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