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Katt, Kearns and Geary Secure Major Ninth Circuit Victory in Aviation Matter

October 9, 2019

Bill Katt (Partner-Milwaukee), Patrick Kearns (Partner-San Diego) and Kevin Geary (Associate-Milwaukee) recently obtained a significant published decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of a Wilson Elser client, a major helicopter operator. The underlying case stems from a helicopter crash in the Grand Canyon, which resulted in multiple fatalities. The issue on appeal involved the attempted use of “federal officer” jurisdiction as a vehicle for product manufacturers to remove a case to federal court. The opposing party, on appeal, originally removed the case to federal court claiming that because the FAA had delegated it some self-certification functions with respect to various aspects of its manufacturing process, it was “acting under” the direction of federal officers and should, therefore, have an automatic path to federal court jurisdiction. 

The Wilson Elser team successfully argued to the Ninth Circuit that the authority given by the FAA was insufficient to confer “federal officer” status. Wilson Elser further highlighted the potential consequences of the opposing party’s position, noting that if product manufacturers in highly regulated industries were to have a universal “free pass” to federal court jurisdiction, preemption defenses could effectively eliminate state-court products liability entirely for certain manufacturers, leaving an imbalance in liability exposure for operators. The Ninth Circuit, in a published decision with a wide-ranging impact on the aviation industry, agreed with the Wilson Elser team and its client, aligning itself with other circuits and holding that the opposing party’s FAA delegate status was limited to compliance with FAA regulations, not to act as a federal officer. Consequently, the remand to State Court was affirmed.

 

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