Injured Passenger Can Sue Airline for Negligence in State Court

May 17, 2010

A disabled passenger who fell and injured himself while exiting a commuter plane in Philadelphia can sue the airline in state court, a federal court has ruled.

The suit — which a lower court tossed, ruling that federal law preempts negligence claims in such cases – opens the door for the defendant to sue for damages and injury claims he sustained from the injury.

The plaintiff in the suit, Joseph Elassaad, is a single-leg amputee who relies on crutches to walk. His suit against Independence Air stems from a 2004 incident in which Elassaad fell down a flight of stairs while attempting to disembark from an aircraft that had flown him from Boston to Philadelphia.

The fall injured Elassaad’s shoulder, tearing his cartilage and requiring surgery. He sued in state court, alleging that the airline failed to provide him with a wheelchair or another means of exiting the plan.

The key issue in the suit is whether federal laws known as the Federal Aviation Act and the Air Carrier Access Act – which govern the operation of aircraft – or state law applied. Under federal law, since Elassaad failed to request assistance, the airline is not liable for his injuries. Under state law, that is not the case.

A District Court in Philadelphia agreed with the airline that the case was subject to federal law and ruled in its favor. However, Elassaad appealed that decision and Independence Air moved to transfer the case to federal court.

In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in favor of the Elassaadd, finding that federal law did not preempt his negligence claim against Independence Air.

In its decision, the court drew a distinction between laws governing standards of care while a plane is in flight, and while it is stopped for passengers to exit.

“Here, there is no indication that either Congress or the FAA intended that federal law would impose a legal duty in an area that is neither specifically regulated by federal law nor clearly governed by a general federal standard of care: the assistance provided to passengers during their disembarkation,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, we conclude that (federal law and regulations) do not pre-empt state law standards of care in this negligence action.”

The court remanded the case back to the state court in Philadelphia.

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