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In Re: Air Crash Near Clarence Center

July 18, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

This document relates to:



Presently before this Court are the parties' choice-of-law motions filed in this multidistrict litigation concerning the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. On February 12, 2009, while on final approach to the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Flight 3407 crashed into a house in Clarence Center, N.Y., killing 50 people (all 49 on board and one in the house) and damaging neighboring property.

By order entered October 6, 2009, the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred all then-pending actions concerning the crash of Flight 3407 to this Court for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407. In Re Air Crash Near Clarence Ctr., N.Y., on Feb. 12, 2009, 655 F. Supp. 2d 1355, 1356 (J.P.M.L. 2009). Subsequently-filed actions have also been transferred here. To date, the litigation encompasses individual cases commenced in Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

In their Motions for the Application of a Federal Standard of Care (Docket No. 486*fn1 and for a Determination of Applicable Law on Punitive Damages (Docket No. 437), Defendants Pinnacle Airlines Corp. and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Colgan Air, Inc., argue that federal standards of care apply to Plaintiffs' state law negligence claims and that Virginia law governs punitive damages. In their Cross Motion for the Application of New York law (Docket No. 579), Plaintiffs argue that New York law governs both the standards of care and punitive damages. For the reasons discussed below, this Court finds that federal standards of care apply to Plaintiffs' state law negligence claims and that New York law applies to punitive damages.


A. Law Governing the Standard of Care

Defendants seek application of federal standards of care on the theory that Congress intended the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 ("the Aviation Act"), 49 U.S.C. §§ 40101, et seq., and its associated regulations (e.g., 14 C.F.R. §§ 21-199, et seq.) to preempt all state law standards of care relating to air safety. Defendants maintain that federal control over the nation's airspace is extensive and exclusive, and therefore, federal standards of care preempt individual state law and provide the relevant standards relating to aviation safety and aircraft operations. Thus, rather than meet New York's reasonably-prudent-person standard, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs must instead prove that a violation of a federal standard of care (e.g., a federal statute or regulation) caused their alleged injuries. Plaintiffs maintain that the Aviation Act does not preempt state law.

Congress's power to preempt state law derives from the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that [t]his Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby; any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2; see also Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746, 101 S.Ct. 2114, 68 L.Ed.2d 576 (1981).

Federal preemption can be express or implied. See N.Y. SMSA Ltd. P'ship v. Town of Clarkstown, 612 F.3d 97, 104 (2d Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Express preemption exists when "a federal statute expressly directs that state law be ousted." Ass'n of Int'l Auto. Mfrs. v. Abrams, 84 F.3d 602, 607 (2d Cir. 1996). Implied preemption exists when there is evidence that Congress intended federal authority to displace state authority. See Crosby v. Nat'l Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363, 372, 120 S.Ct. 2288, 147 L.Ed.2d 352 (2000). Thus, implied preemption is "fundamentally a question of congressional intent." Gerosa v. Savasta & Co., 329 F.3d 317, 323 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing N.Y. State Conference of Blue Cross & Blue Shield Plans v. Travelers Ins. Co., 514 U.S. 645, 655, 115 S.Ct. 1671, 131 L.Ed.2d 695 (1995)); Pilot Life Ins. Co. v. Dedeauz, 481 U.S. 41, 45, 107 S.Ct. 1549, 1552, 95 L.Ed.2d 39 (1987) (Congressional intent is the "ultimate touchstone" of preemption analysis). The analysis "begin[s] with the assumption that 'Congress does not intend to supplant state law.'" Gerosa, 329 F.3d at 323-34 (examining preemption in the ERISA context) (citing Travelers, 514 U.S. at 654-55).

Defendants argue that the doctrine of field preemption requires the application of federal standards of care. Field preemption is a form of implied preemption. See English v. Gen. Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72, 79-80, 110 S.Ct. 2270, 110 L.Ed.2d 65 (1990). It "is inferred in cases where federal law is so pervasive that it leaves 'no room for supplementary state regulation' - where the federal law has fully occupied the field of regulation." U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Mfg. Co. v. City of N.Y., 703 F. Supp. 2d 329, 335 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (quoting Hillsborough Cnty., Fla. v. Automated Med. Labs., Inc., 471 U.S. 707, 713, 105 S.Ct. 2371, 85 L.Ed.2d 714 (1985)). It is found where "the pervasiveness of the federal regulation precludes supplementation by the States, where the federal interest in the field is sufficiently dominant, or where 'the object sought to be obtained by the federal law and the character of obligations imposed by it . . . reveal the same purpose.'" Air Transp. Ass'n of Am., Inc. v. Cuomo, 520 F.3d 218, 220-21 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Schneidewind v. ANR Pipeline Co., 485 U.S. 293, 300, 108 S.Ct. 1145, 99 L.Ed.2d 316 (1988).

If congressional intent to preempt is found, the next task is to determine the scope of the preemption: "The key question is thus at what point the state regulation sufficiently interferes with federal regulation that it should be deemed preempted." Gade v. Nat'l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass'n, 505 U.S. 88, 107, 112 S.Ct. 2374, 120 L.Ed.2d 73 (1992).

During the briefing of Defendants' present motion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit resolved the first preemption inquiry, holding that "Congress has indicated its intent to occupy the entire field of aviation safety." Goodspeed Airport LLC v. E. Haddam Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Comm'n, 634 F.3d 206, 212 (2d Cir. 2011). In so doing, the Second Circuit joined its sister circuits in concluding that Congress intended the Aviation Act to entirely preempt state regulation of air safety. See, e.g., U.S. Airways, Inc. v. O'Donnell, 627 F.3d 1318, 1326 (10th Cir. 2010); Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464, 468 (9th Cir. 2007); Greene v. B.F. Goodrich Avionics Sys., Inc., 409 F.3d 784, 795 (6th Cir. 2005); Abdullah v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 181 F.3d 363, 367-68 (3d Cir. 1999); French v. Pan Am Express, Inc., 869 F.2d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 1989); see also Curtin v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 183 F. Supp. 2d 664, 671 (S.D.N.Y. 2002). The remaining question is whether Congress's preemption of air safety encompasses the standards of care applicable to Plaintiffs' state law negligence claims.*fn2 Goodspeed, 634 F.3d at 210-11 (explaining the preemption analysis as twofold: "we must determine not only Congressional intent to preempt, but also the scope of that preemption").

Plaintiffs' state law negligence claims would ordinarily require application of the reasonably-prudent-person standard of care to determine whether Defendants breached their duties. See Havas v. Victory Paper Stock Co., 402 N.E.2d 1136, 1138-39 (N.Y. 1980). Plaintiffs generally allege that Defendants' negligent acts included hiring, training, and supervising the flight crew, and creating and implementing various safety programs. Plaintiffs also allege that Defendants are responsible for the flight crew's negligent operation of Flight 3407. There is little question that these claims directly implicate air safety, and indeed, there is no argument from Plaintiffs that their claims fall outside the air safety field.

The Aviation Act "was passed by Congress for the purpose of centralizing in a single authority - indeed, in one administrator - the power to frame rules for the safe and efficient use of the nation's airspace." Air Line Pilots Ass'n., Int'l v. Quesada, 276 F.2d 892, 894 (2d Cir. 1960). Congress directed the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to develop safety standards and regulations governing specific areas of air safety, as well as "other practices, methods, and procedures the Administrator finds necessary for safety in air commerce and national security." 49 U.S.C. § 44701(a)(5). Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations contains these regulations.

Federal regulation of this field is extensive and exclusive: "The [Aviation Act] and its corresponding regulations, in prescribing a standard of care for the safety of airline travel, has created an 'overarching general standard of care.'" See Shupert v. Cont'l Airlines, Inc., No. 00 Civ. 2743 (LMM), 2004 WL 784859, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 12, 2004) (citing Abdullah, 181 F.3d at 365). The general standard of care is that "[n]o person may operate an aircraft in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." 14 C.F.R. § 91.13 (a). This general standard is supplemented by the numerous specific safety regulations set forth in Title 14. See Curtin, 183 F. Supp. 2d at 668 (finding that the federal regulations set forth an "array of specific safety standards" for the aviation industry). Applying state law standards of care would interfere with these regulations and potentially subject airlines and related entities to 50 different standards.

Accordingly, following Goodspeed, this Court finds that the Aviation Act and its accompanying federal regulations preempt state regulation of the air safety field, including state standards of care. Federal laws and regulations exclusively occupy the field of air safety and therefore apply to Plaintiffs' claims, which directly implicate that field. See Aldana v. Air E. Airways, Inc., 477 F. Supp. 2d 489, 493 (D. Conn. 2007) (applying federal standard of care to state negligence claims arising out of aircrash); Shupert, 2004 WL 784859, at *5-6 (applying federal standard of care to claims involving air safety). State law causes of action and remedies remain available, however, under the Aviation Act's savings clause, which provides that "a remedy under this part is in addition to any other remedies provided by law." 49 U.S.C. § 40120 (c). Thus, if Plaintiffs prove that Defendants were negligent, as governed by federal standards of care, they may pursue remedies under New York law. See Aldana, 477 F. Supp. 2d at 493.

B. Law Governing Punitive Damages

Defendants maintain that Virginia law governs punitive damages; Plaintiffs maintain that New York law governs. Virginia caps total punitive damages at $350,000; New York has no cap. See VA. Code Ann. § 8.01-38.1. There is thus an actual conflict of laws. See Curley v. AMR Corp., 153 F.3d 5, 12 (2d Cir. 1998) (noting that in New York, "the first question to resolve in determining whether to undertake a choice of law analysis is whether there is an actual conflict of laws").

When faced with such a conflict of laws, a federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction in multidistrict litigation transferred to it under 28 U.S.C. § 1407 must apply the choice-of-law rules of the states in which the individual actions were commenced. Int'l Paper Co. v. Ouellette, 479 U.S. 481, 501, 107 S.Ct. 805, 93 L.Ed.2d 883 (1987); Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941); In re Air Crash Disaster Near Chicago, Ill. on May 25, 1979, 644 F.2d 594, 610 (7th Cir. 1981) (noting that "the choice-of-law rules to be used are those choice-of-law rules of the states where the actions were originally filed"); In re Air Crash Disaster at Boston, Mass. on July 31, 1973, 399 F. Supp. 1106, 1108 (D.Mass. 1975) (similar). The task is to determine what law each of the forum states would apply in this situation. See O'Rourke v. E. Air Lines, Inc., 730 F.2d 842, 847 (2d Cir. 1984), abrogated on other grounds by Salve Regina Coll. v. Russell, 499 U.S. 225, 230, 111 S.Ct. 1217, 113 L.Ed.2d (1991).

Individual actions in this case were filed in five states: Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Defendants are not domiciled in any of these states.

Colgan is a Virginia corporation, reportedly had its principal place of business in Virginia at the time of the aircrash, and now has its principal place of business in Tennessee. Pinnacle is a Delaware corporation ...

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