SW Legal studies in Business

Airline Passenger Suit for Defective Airline Stairs Not Precluded by Federal Regulation

Appeals court held that a passenger who suffered injuries when she fell down the stairs while getting off of an airplane, could sue in tort claiming defective design. The common law suit was not preempted by federal regulation of the airlines, as that regulation did not cover this area of airline operations.

Topic Torts
Key Words

Product Liability; Defective Design; Federal Preemption

C A S E   S U M M A R Y

A passenger getting off a commercial airplane, by way of stairs leading down from the plane, fell down the stairs and suffered serious injuries. She sued the airline, the plane manufacturer and related parties. She contended that the stairway was defectively designed as it had only one handrail instead of two. The airline settled the case for $8 million and sought indemnity from the other defendants. The district court dismissed the suit, holding that federal law, The Federal Aviation Act (FAA) preempted state law actions for issues regarding aircraft safety. The airline appealed.


Reversed. The FAA did not preempt the passenger’s state law claim for personal injuries suffered when she fell down the stairs. The FAA contained no express preemption clause. It requires airlines to maintain liability insurance sufficient to pay for bodily injury or death resulting from operation or maintenance of the aircraft. FAA amendments showed congressional intent to prohibit states from regulating the airlines while preserving state tort remedies that already existed at common law. The design of airplane stairs was not pervasively regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration, so state law can presume to apply and the case can proceed.


Martin v. Midwest Express, 555 F.3d 806 (9th Cir., 2009)

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