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Williams v. U.S. Airways

November 18, 2010

MARGARET WILLIAMS
v.
U.S. AIRWAYS, INC.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Savage, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Margaret Williams brought a personal injury claim against defendant US Airways, Inc., alleging that it negligently operated an aircraft on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport. Williams, an employee of a company that cleans aircraft at the Philadelphia International Airport, was injured when she was crossing the tarmac between two terminals to clean an aircraft. To avoid an aircraft sitting on the tarmac, Williams walked along the wall several gates from the rear of the plane before crossing the tarmac toward the other terminal. At the mid-point, she was thrown to the ground by the thrust of the aircraft's exhaust.

Moving for summary judgment, US Airways contends that Williams has failed to show that it violated "any identifiable federal duty of care" and has instead alleged only a "generic negligence claim." According to US Airways, because her negligence claim arising out of the operation of an aircraft is preempted by federal law, Williams must plead and prove a breach of a federal duty of care. Additionally, it argues that the deficiency of her complaint aside, Williams still has failed to identify any facts suggesting US Airways acted negligently in any way. Thus, it contends she cannot establish an essential element of her negligence claim.

Williams agrees that federal law supplies the standard of care for her negligence claim. She argues that US Airways's negligent conduct violated 14 C.F.R. § 91.13(b), a regulation that establishes the applicable standard. She concedes that she may be comparatively negligent for misjudging the safest distance from the operating aircraft, but whether she was negligent is a factual issue inappropriate for disposition on summary judgment.

We conclude that contrary to US Airways's argument, there is no requirement that a plaintiff in an aviation negligence action must plead a specific statute or regulation defining the applicable standard of care in her complaint. Nevertheless, in this case, after drawing all reasonable inferences in Williams's favor, we find that there is no evidence from which a rational jury could find that US Airways was negligent. Therefore, US Airways is entitled to summary judgment.

Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). Judgment will be entered against a party who fails to sufficiently establish any element essential to that party's case and who bears the ultimate burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In examining the motion, we must draw all reasonable inferences in the non-movant's favor. InterVest, Inc. v. Bloomberg, L.P., 340 F.3d 144, 159-60 (3d Cir. 2003).

The initial burden of demonstrating there are no genuine issues of material fact falls on the moving party. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party must counter with "'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). The non-movant must show more than the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" for elements on which she bears the burden of production. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). Bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions are not sufficient to defeat summary judgment. Fireman's Ins. Co. v. DuFresne, 676 F.2d 965, 969 (3d Cir. 1982). Thus, "[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (internal quotations omitted).

Discussion

US Airways first argues that Williams failed to allege the proper standard of care in her complaint. In other words, it contends that Williams has not made out a claim because she has not alleged a breach of a federally defined standard of care, nor can any applicable federal standard be divined from her complaint. It claims the complaint merely lists a string of "generic acts or omissions." According to US Airways, these general allegations fail to establish any duty owed to her by US Airways.

We reject this contention for two reasons. First, there is no requirement that a plaintiff must plead a specific federal regulation or statute supplying the standard of care in an aviation negligence action. Second, Williams has sufficiently alleged in her complaint the applicable duty and identified the conduct she claims breached that duty.

The Federal Aviation Act ("Aviation Act"), 49 U.S.C. § 40101 et seq., and its implementing regulations preempt state tort law in the field of aviation safety. Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc., 181 F.3d 363, 367-68 (3d Cir. 1999). What is covered by the field of "aviation safety" extends beyond in-flight situations. The Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") promulgated Regulation 91.13 to define the general parameters of an airline's duty. 14 C.F.R. § 91.13. The regulation applies to both in-flight operations, § 91.13(a); and ground operations, § 91.13(b).*fn1 It establishes an airline's general duty of care, in the absence of a specific regulation covering a particular situation, as one of carelessness and recklessness.

It is § 91.13(b) that governs this case. The FAA has defined operation of an aircraft "other than for the purpose of air navigation," as used in § 91.13(b), to include "those acts which impart some physical movement to the aircraft, or involve the manipulation of the controls of an aircraft such as starting or running an aircraft engine." Careless or Reckless Ground Operation of Aircraft, 32 Fed. Reg. 9640, 9640-41 (July 4, 1967).

There is no dispute that the US Airways aircraft emitted a jet blast while Williams was on the tarmac. The engine either had been running or was started as Williams walked behind the aircraft. Without question, a jet blast may ...


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