Plaintiff Could Sue Airline For Lack Of Defibrillator

USDC Judge: State-Law Claims Not Pre-Empted

May 5, 2003 | Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
By Jason M. Scally

A plaintiff whose husband died from cardiac arrest while on an airplane could bring state-law claims against the airline for not equipping its plane with a defibrillator, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled.

The airline brought motions to dismiss the plaintiff’s state-law claims for wrongful death, gross negligence, reckless conduct, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and unfair acts and practices under Chapter 93A, and argued that they were preempted by federal law.

But Chief Judge William G. Young found that only the Chapter 93A claim was preempted and allowed the others to proceed.

On the airline’s motion to reconsider, Young upheld the order and denied its request for an interlocutory appeal. Young said: “This Court holds that the law embodied in [the plaintiff’s] state tort claims does not conflict with the relevant federal statutes so as to be preempted.”

The judge found that state claims were not expressly preempted by language in the applicable federal statutes, and that legislative history did not support the defendant’s contention that Congress implied they should be barred.

The 40-page decision is Stone v. Frontier Airlines, Inc., Lawyers Weekly No. 02-064-03.

‘Vindication Of State Law’

John E. Garber of Springfield, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, said the decision was important because “defendants are increasingly raising federal pre-emption [as a defense], and recent federal cases encourage them to do so.”

But he called Young’s opinion a “vindication” of state law against the “steady encroachment” of some federal laws.

“The opinion recognizes that, even in a regulated area like the airline industry, the state common law remains essential for the protection of passengers,” Garber said. “The opinion also recognizes that state tort law and federal safety regulation may complement each other, especially in the case of minimum federal regulations.”

Paul S. Weinberg and Ronald C. Kidd, both of Springfield, were co-counsel for the plaintiff.

Kurt B. Gerstner of Boston, an attorney for the defendant, said he disagreed with the decision, noting that there is a split among the circuits as to how broadly the term “services” is to be defined, in reference to the services that are regulated by federal law.

He said he would not be surprised if the case ultimately finds its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not addressed this legal issue to date.

“Even Judge Young acknowledged it was a really difficult issue,” Gerstner said, referencing comments made by the judge to the parties before the motion was decided. “It’s a tough call.”

Tragedy In The Air

On July 27, 2000, Brett Stone, the 28-year-old decedent, was on a Frontier Airlines flight from Boston to San Francisco with his wife Christine when he suffered a “cardiac rhythm disturbance” that left him in cardiac arrest.

The plaintiff, his wife Christine, immediately called a flight attendant once she saw her husband was in need of medical assistance, and the flight attendant asked if there were any qualified medical personnel on board.

Two passengers, a physician and an emergency medical technician, came to the decedent’s aid, but they found that there was no defibrillator or medicine on board used for treating a person in cardiac arrest.

Despite their efforts to save him, Stone died.

In Young’s opinion, he observed that the commercial airline industry had been aware of the benefit of defibrillators as early as the early 1990s.

As examples, the judge noted that:

• in 1991, foreign air carriers traveling to the United States began outfitting their planes with defibrillators;

• in 1992, the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross began specifically advocating that airlines should have the life-saving devices on their planes;

• between 1994 and 1999, airline safety organizations conducted seminars on the need for defibrillators;

• in 1996, the issue received national media attention from major newspapers;

• in 1997, American Airlines began carrying defibrillators on its flights;

• in 1998, an American Airlines passenger was saved by the use of an in-flight defibrillator;

• in 2000, an American Airlines medical director and passengers who had been saved by defibrillators testified on the benefits of defibrillators before Congress; and

• in 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a ruling requiring commercial airplanes to be outfitted with defibrillators by April 12, 2004.

The plaintiff, individually and as the administrator of her husband’s estate, brought state-law claims for wrongful death, gross negligence, reckless conduct, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and unfair acts and practices under Chapter 93A against Frontier.

She alleged that it would only have cost Frontier Airlines $120,000 to equip its entire fleet of planes with defibrillators.

The defendant sought to dismiss all of the plaintiff’s state-law claims, but in December 2002 the court disagreed and only dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for the alleged Chapter 93A violation.

The defendants then filed a motion for reconsideration.

No ‘Explicit’ Preemption T

he defendant claimed that plaintiff’s state-law claims were expressly preempted by the Deregulation Act, which specifically prohibits states from regulating anything “related to a price, route or service of any air carrier that may provide air transportation.”

But Young disagreed.

Although he noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had broadly interpreted the term “related to,” Young said that neither the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals nor the U.S. Supreme Court had determined whether “services” encompassed failure to provide defibrillators on an airplane.

However, he pointed out that U.S District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker had ruled in the 1999 decision Somes v. United Airlines that “services” did not include defibrillators.

Lasker wrote: “[T]he 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 when it adopted the [Deregulation Act’s] preemption provision.”

Young said that “[t]o interpret the term ‘services’ more broadly than did the Somes court would not merely violate [a canon of statutory construction which says that unclear words should be defined by the surrounding words], but would envelop the words ‘rates’ and ‘routes’ and render them superfluous.”

The judge added that the 5th and 9th circuits have also held that defibrillators, or other in-flight medical equipment, were not within the definition of “services.”

Young also said he was further persuaded that “services” did not include the provision of medical services via defibrillator because:

• the legislative history of the Deregulation Act showed otherwise;

• the act has “savings” clause; and

• the act provides no remedy for personal injury claims.

As a result, the judge found that federal law did not expressly preempt the plaintiff’s state-law claims.

No ‘Implied’ Preemption

Young also determined that there was no implied preemption of state-law claims because “[n]either the Aviation Act and its corresponding history and regulations…evince congressional intent to preempt the field within which [the plaintiff’s] claims fall.”

Although there was evidence that Congress intended to regulate “air safety,” he found that defibrillators did not fit under that category.

“The safety with which Congress was primarily concerned is the operational and functional integrity of an aircraft – internally and externally – as it affects passengers and the public,” the judge said. “The independent health and medical needs if individual passengers, by contrast, do not necessarily relate to the integrity of the aircraft.”

Young also found that there was no “[i]mplied conflict preemption” because airlines still could comply with both state and federal law.

He rejected the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s state-law tort claims were in conflict with congressional objectives.

The defendants cited a case where an auto accident victim sued a car manufacturer, claiming that it should have installed side airbags.

Although the plaintiff was preempted from bringing state-law claims in that suit, Young distinguished the airbag rule – which gave auto manufacturers a choice of safety measures – from the FAA rule requiring defibrillators by 2004.

“The [FAA] rule is in complete harmony – not conflict – with a state negligence standard that might also independently require airlines to carry defibrillators,” said Young. “Moreover, even assuming the rule creates a conflict now, the rule was not in effect as of July 27, 2000, the date of Mr. Stone’s death.”

The judge added that the federal regulations themselves also suggested that state-based tort actions would not be preempted.

Finally, Young ruled that a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor would not violate the Commerce Clause, because “Massachusetts’ interest in advancing the health and safety of its citizens overrides any limited burden that enforcement of its tort laws would place on interstate commerce.”

He ultimately upheld his earlier ruling, which dismissed all of the plaintiff’s state-based tort claims except the Chapter 93A claim. That claim, he said, was preempted by the Deregulation Act, which leaves “the selection and design of marketing mechanisms” to the airlines themselves.

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