Seventh Circuit Expands Federal Jurisdiction for International Aviation Accidents

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July 31, 2015
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The recent decision by the Seventh Circuit in Junhong v. Boeing provides some insight on jurisdiction and venue that will likely have a broad reaching effect on the basis for future international aviation litigation.

The Junhong case arose from the July 6, 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines flight into the seawall separating the Pacific Ocean from the end of the runway in San Francisco.The Boeing 777 approached too low and too slow, resulting in three passengers’ deaths and 49 serious injuries.The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the principal cause of the crash was pilot error.

Some of the injured passengers/plaintiffs filed claims against Boeing in the Circuit Court of Cook County, alleging the aircraft’s systems were defective and caused or contributed to the pilot error. Boeing removed those cases to federal court, asserting two sources of jurisdiction: federal officers’ right to have claims against them decided by federal courts and admiralty. The district court, however, rejected both of these justifications and remanded the claims back to the state court. Boeing appealed. The Seventh Circuit reversed one rational and upheld the other.

First, the court rejected Boeing’s argument that it was acting under the FAA, i.e. a federal officer, and had the right for federal courts to hear the claims brought against it. Specifically, Boeing argued that because the FAA granted it authority to use FAA approved procedures to self-certify its systems, Boeing was subjected to FAA control and acts as a representative of the FAA Administrator in carrying out those functions. The Seventh Circuit disagreed. Rather, because Boeing does not have rule making authority to issue conclusive certifications of compliance, it does not qualify for “acting under” a federal officer status. If mere self-reporting enabled Boeing to be a federal officer, then a slippery slope would be created, as then each taxpayer who certifies its tax returns or lawyer who certifies its briefs would be entitled to this qualification as well. Therefore, removal was not supported by Boeing’s federal officer argument.

Conversely, the court found that federal admiralty jurisdiction was a sufficient basis for removal. Historically, admiralty jurisdiction was available when an injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel in navigable water if the cause bears a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity. Focusing on the plane’s path over the Pacific Ocean as a maritime activity, the court found the flight to be a substitute for an ocean going vessel. The fact that the airplane was not a “vessel” and it was “over” rather than “on” the water did not functionally make a difference in light of the maritime connection. Moreover, even though the injury itself may have occurred on land, the cause of the injury occurred over the water. The court found these allegations satisfied admiralty jurisdiction. It is important to note, though, that the court also cautioned this would not extend to torts arising from flights by land-based aircraft between points within the continental United States.

Overall, the Seventh Circuit widened the pathway to federal jurisdiction arising from international flights with its decision on admiralty jurisdiction forming an independent basis for removal. In addition, the court created a dividing line with other district courts which have previously held that maritime actions brought in state court precluded removal absent an independent basis for removal. Further challenges to this ruling are sure to follow.