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Crout v. Haverfield International, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. New York

September 7, 2017

BRENDA CROUT, Temporary Administrator of the Estate of Dale R. Crout, decedent, Plaintiff,
HAVERFIELD INTERNATIONAL, INC., doing business as Haverfield Aviation, Inc., Defendant.




         Plaintiff Brenda Crout ("Plaintiff) filed this wrongful death action on January 22, 2014, in the Supreme Court of New York, Kings County, relating to a tragic helicopter accident in which Dale R. Crout ("the decedent") and helicopter pilot Mackenzie Bleth ("Bleth") died. (Dkt. 1). Defendant Haverfield International, Inc. ("Defendant") removed the action to the Eastern District of New York on April 7, 2014. (Id. at 1-2).[1]The case was transferred to this Court by Stipulation and Order on September 9, 2014. (Dkt. 16).

         Presently before the Court are cross-motions for partial summary judgment. (Dkt. 36; Dkt. 42). Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on the issue of Bleth's negligence (and thereby Defendant's vicarious liability), and for dismissal of Defendant's affirmative defense of the decedent's comparative negligence. (Dkt. 39). Defendant seeks summary judgment on the applicable standard of care for Bleth's negligence, and as to Plaintiffs claim for negligent hiring and training. (Dkt. 43).

         For the reasons stated below, Plaintiffs motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 36) is denied, and Defendant's motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. 42) is granted.


         On the morning of November 15, 2012, shortly before noon, a helicopter owned by Defendant, piloted by Bleth, and carrying the decedent took off on the second of three days of planned flights to inspect power lines in the vicinity of Corning, New York. (Dkt. 39 at 3; Dkt. 44 at ¶¶ 5-8, 11).

         In control of the aircraft was Bleth, a 24-year-old pilot Defendant hired less than a month prior. (Dkt. 38 at ¶¶ 24-25). Bleth held appropriate "FAA licenses and certifications" to fly the helicopter. (Dkt. 44 at ¶ 13). Bleth and the decedent-a First Class Linesman for New York State Electric and Gas Corporation-were tasked with doing a "powerline patrol, " which "requires a helicopter to fly close to wires, towers and utility structures, " generally at speeds between 30 and 45 knots. (Dkt. 38 at ¶¶ 5, 11, 58; Dkt. 52 at 3). Powerline patrol is a high-risk job. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 17; Dkt. 52 at 5).

         Bleth's first day flying powerline patrol had been the previous day, November 14, 2012, during which he and the decedent had completed 6.2 hours of aerial inspections. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 73). Before this first powerline mission, Defendant provided Bleth with 2.1 hours of total flight training, and 27.2 hours of ground training. (Id. at ¶¶ 27, 70; Dkt. 52 at 7). Defendant released Bleth to fly powerline patrol on November 9, 2012. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 40; Dkt. 52 at 10).

         The decedent had performed inspections on the same powerlines in 2009, 2010, and 2011, and was "more than proficient" in reading a powerline map. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 63; Dkt. 52 at 25; Dkt. 59 at 8). The November 15, 2012, flight was operated pursuant to 14 C.F.R. Part 91. (Dkt. 38 at ¶20; Dkt. 52 at 6; see, e.g., Dkt. 37-4 at 2 (National Transportation Safety Board's ("NTSB") report stating that "[t]he aerial observation flight was conducted under the provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91"); Dkt. 37-21 at 2 (same)).

         For context, a description of the construction of power transmission wire systems is necessary. A wire or series of wires that runs perpendicular to another set of wires is called a "tap" line. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 50; Dkt. 52 at 12). A shield wire, which protects power transmission lines from lightning strikes, generally runs along the top of the towers. (Dkt. 38 at ¶8; Dkt. 52 at 12). The shield wire is typically smaller than power transmission wires and can be more difficult to observe. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 49; Dkt. 52 at 12). During powerline patrol, a pilot should anticipate that there is a shield wire, even if he cannot see one. (Dkt. 38 at ¶53; Dkt. 52 at 12). Transmission and static lines are, at times, difficult to see, and can be invisible, during powerline patrol. (Dkt. 52 at 22; Dkt. 59 at 1). The visibility of a wire can change from moment to moment. (Dkt. 52 at 23; Dkt. 59 at 2).

         Defendant requires its pilots and passengers to attend a safety briefing, called a "tailboard, " before takeoff. (Dkt. 38 at ¶42; Dkt. 52 at 11). During the tailboard, the pilot and the inspector discuss the powerline transmission map for the lines they plan to inspect. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 43).[3] Defendant requires details of the tailboard to be recorded in a document and signed by each person in the helicopter. (Id. at ¶ 42; Dkt. 52 at 11). No such document has been recovered or produced for the November 15, 2012, flight. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 46; Dkt. 52 at 11).

         The November 15, 2012, flight took off at 11:49 AM. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 75; Dkt. 52 at 17). At 12:11 PM, the vertical strut on the helicopter's right landing skid struck a shield wire on a tap line 96 feet above the ground. (Dkt. 38 at ¶¶ 77, 83; Dkt. 52 at 18-19). The helicopter had been flying at approximately 43 knots in level flight. (Dkt. 38 at ¶79; Dkt. 52 at 18). The impact with the tap line caused the helicopter to crash, killing both Bleth and the decedent. (Dkt. 44 at ¶ 11; Dkt. 49 at 4). The helicopter ignited once it hit the ground. (Dkt. 37-4 at 2). Neither weather nor any mechanical issue caused the crash. (Dkt. 38 at ¶¶ 89-90; Dkt. 52 at 19-20).

         There is no transcript or any recording of the communications between Bleth and the decedent during the November 15, 2012, flight. (Dkt. 38 at ¶ 94; Dkt. 52 at 20).


         I. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that summary judgment should be granted if the moving party establishes "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The court should grant summary judgment if, after considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court finds that no rational jury could find in favor of that party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)).

         Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. . . . [T]he nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Caldarola v. Calabrese, 298 F.3d 156, 160 (2d Cir. 2002) (quoting Matsushita Elec., 475 U.S. at 586-87). "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment" Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

         II. Federal Preemption

         Untangling the issues in this case begins with a determination as to the existence and extent of federal preemption of state and common law in relation to the applicable safety standards. Defendant asserts that the federal government, through the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, 49 U.S.C. §§ 1301 et seq. ("FAA"), preempted the entire field of aviation safety. (Dkt. 43 at 9-13). Plaintiff asserts that federal preemption of state and common law does not reach the issues in this case, and, as such, the Court must look to industry and state standards in determining the merits. (Dkt. 48 at 10-19).

         The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution instructs that the Constitution and laws of United States are "the supreme Law of the Land . . . any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding." U.S. Const. art. VI cl. 2. "[S]tate and local laws that conflict with federal law are 'without effect.'" N.Y. SMSA Ltd. P'ship v. Town of Clarkson, 612 F.3d 97, 103 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Altria Grp., Inc. v. Good, 555 U.S. 70, 76 (2008)).

In general, three types of preemption exist: (1) express preemption, where Congress has expressly preempted local law; (2) field preemption, "where Congress has legislated so comprehensively that federal law occupies an entire field of regulation and leaves no room for state law"; and (3) conflict preemption, where local law conflicts with federal law such that it is impossible for a party to comply with both or the local law is an obstacle to the achievement of federal objectives.

Id. at 104 (citation omitted). Congress's intent is key to determining preemption. Altria Grp., 555 U.S. at 76. "Pre-emptive intent may also be inferred if the scope of the statute indicates that Congress intended federal law to occupy the legislative field, or if there is an actual conflict between state and federal law." Id. at 76-77.

         "The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States." 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a)(1). "The FAA was enacted to create a 'uniform and exclusive system of federal regulation' in the field of air safety." Air Trans. Ass'n of Am., Inc. v. Cuomo, 520 F.3d 218, 224 (2d Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). "[T]he FAA '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.'" Id. (citing Air Line Pilots Ass'n, Intern, v. Quesada, 276 F.2d 892, 894 (2d Cir. I960)); see, e.g., French v. Pan Am Exp., Inc., 869 F.2d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 1989) ("[The] establishment of a single uniform system of regulation in the area of air safety was one of the primary 'objects sought to be obtained' by passage of the [FAA]."); Kohr v. Allegheny Airlines, 504 F.2d 400, 404 (7th Cir. 1974) ("[T]he principal purpose of the Act is to create one unified system of flight rules and to centralize in the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration the power to promulgate rules for the safe and efficient use of the country's airspace."). The Second Circuit has held that "Congress intended to occupy the entire field of air safety. . . ." Goodspeed Airport LLC v. E. Haddam Inland Wetlands & Watercourses Comm'n, 634 F.3d 206, 210 (2d Cir. 2011) (emphasis added). Thus, the law of this Circuit is that field preemption applies in the area of air safety. Id.

         Once Congress's intent is established, the court must look to the scope of the preemption to determine whether "the state regulation sufficiently interferes with federal regulation [such] that it should be deemed preempted." Gade v. Nat'l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass'n, 505 U.S. 88, 107 (1992); see, e.g., Goodspeed Airport, 634 F.3d at 210-11 ("[T]he inquiry is twofold; we must determine not only Congressional intent to preempt, but also the scope of that preemption."). Even where an entire field is preempted, if the state laws at issue do not interfere with federal laws and regulations, the state laws are not preempted. Goodspeed Airport, 634 F.3d at 211.

         III. Defendant's ...

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