There is no doubt that airports, just like other property owners, are obligated to maintain their property in a reasonably safe condition, and may be liable to invitees who are injured due to an unsafe condition. This duty has been extended beyond an airport’s primary buildings to its runways and taxiways and outlying structures. While the issue of an airport’s duty to maintain its property laterally is fairly well-settled, an airport’s duty to ensure the safety of its premises vertically has not been frequently discussed. The Court of Appeals of Arizona recently addressed this issue in Ritchie v. Costello.
The City of Cottonwood invited hot air balloonists to participate in its annual Airfest, which was to be held at the uncontrolled municipal airport. The plaintiff planned to fly his powered paraglider to take photos of a friend’s balloon. The plaintiff launched from the airport and, at about 1500 feet and about ¼ mile from the airport, crashed into a hot air balloon. He sued the airport, claiming that that airport owed him a duty of care as an invitee that continued even after he became airborne and left the geographical boundaries of the airport.
The court disagreed. While an airport owes a duty to invitees to maintain reasonably safe conditions for aircraft using the airport, once an invitee leaves the premises, that duty terminates. The plaintiff, the court held, was no longer an invitee after he safely launched and moved away from the airport. Similarly, any duty to warn of dangerous conditions (i.e., the obvious balloons) also terminated when the plaintiff ceased being an invitee. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s public policy arguments, noting that a contrary holding would have a chilling effect on municipal-sponsored social gatherings. Finally, the court looked to the Federal Aviation Regulations, and held that the airport did not even have the ability to control the airspace where the plaintiff’s accident occurred.
Airports, like municipalities and other landowners, have legitimate concerns about premises liability being extended beyond the bounds of logic. This concern is heightened for airports, given the level of risk they face. Thus, the Ritchie decision, which is both legally and practically sound, should provide some comfort that the courts will still make quick treatment of an overreaching claim.