Judge: Widow Can Sue Airline for Lack of On-Board Defibrillator

May, 2003 | Andrews Online: Aviation Litigation Reporter
By Nick Sullivan, Editor

The Airline Deregulation Act does not prevent a woman from pressing her wrongful-death suit against Frontier Airlines for failing to carry a defibrillator that might have saved the life of her 28-year-old husband, who died during a flight from Boston to San Francisco, a federal judge has ruled.

Brett Stone was an NCAA record holder in swimming, and a successful venture capitalist. On July 27, 2000, while in the air, Stone suffered a cardiac rhythm disturbance that resulted in cardiac arrest. A physician and an emergency medical technician – passengers aboard the flight – promptly attended to Stone. The physician requested a defibrillator or any other device or drug capable of treating cardiac arrest.

Despite the efforts to save him, Stone died.

Stone’s wife, Christine, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts for wrongful death, gross negligence, reckless conduct, unfair acts and practices in violation of state law, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

On Dec. 2, 2002, the court dismissed the state law claim but denied the airline’s motion for summary judgment on the remaining claims. The airline then moved for reconsideration, again asking the court to rule in its favor without holding a trial.

U.S. District Judge William G. Young issued a lengthy opinion detailing the court’s reasoning on a number of issues.

Frontier argued that the Airline Deregulation Act, which prohibits states from enacting or enforcing laws relating to rates, routes or services, expressly preempted the claims.

Judge Young noted, however, that in Somes v. United Airlines Inc., the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts held that the provision of emergency medical equipment to treat in-flight medical emergencies unrelated to the actual operation of the aircraft is categorically distinct from the “services” Congress had in mind in the ADA.

Moreover, Judge Young said, various other provisions of the ADA and its legislative history – as outlined by Somes, the 5th Circuit in Hodges v. Delta Airlines Inc. and the 9t Circuit in Charas v. Trans World Airlines Inc. – supported the conclusion that state tart claims are not preempted.

Frontier also argued that Congress, by implication, intended to preempt suits such as Stone’s when it ordered the FAA to look into the use of defibrillators on aircraft.

“Nothing in that mandate suggested an intent to prescribe particular standards or potential penalties for non-compliance,” the judge observed. “To suggest that Congress intended to eliminate state tort liability with such a mandate strains credulity.”

Conflict Preemption

Implied conflict preemption occurs where it is impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements, or where state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.

In this case, Judge Young held, th elaw embodied in the state tort claims does not conflict with the relevant federal statutes.

Prior to April 2001 – the date upon which the FAA regulation respecting defibrillators became final – the airlines were neither prohibited from nor required to carry defibrillators; rather, they were required by the FAA to follow “minimum standards” of safety.

Currently, airlines are required to equip all passenger aircraft with defibrillators by April 2004.

“Neither following ‘minimum standards’ of safety (under the old regime) nor following the FAA directive to carry defibrillators (under the new regime) precludes, in any way, an airline from simultaneously complying with state tort law standards of negligence, which may also require airlines to carry defibrillators,” the opinion states.

Even assuming that the rule creates a conflict, Judge Young noted that it was not in effect on the date of Brett Stone’s death.

Finally, Frontier argued that a Massachusetts jury verdict in Stone’s favor, imposing a requirement that airlines carry defibrillators, would violate the Commerce Clause by burdening interstate commerce to a degree that clearly exceeded the local benefits of such a regulation.

Judge Young observed, “Courts have long held that the Commerce Clause does not impair states’ authority to establish reasonable regulations for the protection of the health, lives, and safety of the people within their borders… Massachusetts’ interest in advancing the health and safety of its citizens overrides any limited burden that enforcement of its tort laws would place upon interstate commerce.”

Stone v. Frontier Airlines Inc., No. 01-11817-WGY (D. Mass., Thursday, April 17, 2003).

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