Friday, October 5, 2007
Airlines Have No Duty to Warn of Blood Clot Risk—Court
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Airlines are under no obligation to warn their passengers about the danger of developing potentially fatal blot clots during flights, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
In an opinion by Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder, the court affirmed the decision of U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker of the Northern District of California. Walker said the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and corresponding FAA regulations preempted state law claims against airlines for failing to warn passengers of the risk of developing the condition, known as deep vein thrombosis, and said that there was no duty to warn under federal law.
The panel, however, reversed the district judge’s ruling that the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 preempted the passengers’ state law claim for injuries suffered as a result of allegedly unsafe seating configurations, and remanded the matter to the district court to determine the extent to which seat reconfiguration would affect airline prices.
The plaintiffs claimed that passengers were injured, and in some cases died, after developing deep vein thrombosis during trans- or mid-continental flights as a result of prolonged, cramped seating, and alleged that the airlines were subject to a duty to warn them of the possibility of developing the condition.
Deep vein thrombosis occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, usually in the leg, and can cause serious complications if the clot breaks off and travels to a vital organ such as the lungs or brain.
Walker dismissed the claim that state law standards of care required the airlines to disclose the risk of the condition during pre-flight warnings, holding that the aviation act and corresponding regulations impliedly preempted the entire field of air safety, including preflight warnings.
The judge also ruled that the deregulation act, which prohibits states from indirectly regulating air commerce by enacting laws that have a significant effect on airline prices, routes, or services, preempted the seating configuration claim because the claim would impermissibly affect airline prices.
On appeal, Schroeder agreed that the aviation act preempted any state law duty to warn, observing that the historical impetus for the act, its legislative history, and the act’s language all demonstrated an intent by Congress to invest the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration with the authority to enact exclusive air safety standards.
“If the [act] did not impliedly preempt state requirements for passenger warnings, each state would be free to require any announcement it wished on all planes arriving in, or departing from, its soil, or to impose liability for the violation of any jury’s determination that a standard the jury deems reasonable has been violated,” she said.
Likening such an outcome to a “crazyquilt effect,” Schroeder concluded that the uniqueness of the aviation industry mandated the need for a centralized authority, and affirmed the district court’s decision.
“[F]ederal law occupies the entire field of aviation safety,” she said. “Congress’ intent to displace state law is implicit in the pervasiveness of the federal regulations, the dominance of the federal interest in this area, and the legislative goal of establishing a single, uniform system of control over air safety.”
But Schroeder disagreed with the district judge’s conclusion that the airlines’ argument that seating reconfiguration would decrease the number of seats, require a significant increase in ticket prices to offset revenue loss, and amount to an indirect regulation of fares in violation of the deregulation act.
Acknowledging the deregulation act’s express preemption provision, she noted that the reach of the preemptive effect was limited to regulation that has a long-term material impact, and ruled that there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the state law negligence claim would have a significant impact on airline ticket prices.
“Without more factual development we cannot determine whether the preemptive reach… extends as far as the seating configuration issue presented in this case,” she wrote, as the panel remanded the claim to the district court for further proceedings.
Senior Judge Stephen S. Trott and Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, sitting by designation, joined Schroeder in her opinion.
The case is Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 05-15640.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company