Law School Case Brief
In re September 11 Litig. - 280 F. Supp. 2d 279
New York courts have found that aircraft owners and operators owe a duty to those on the ground who may be harmed or sustain property damage resulting from improper or negligent operation of an aircraft. Although those cases involved injuries resulting from negligent operation or maintenance of airplanes, rather than negligence in regulating the boarding of airplanes, there is no principled distinction between the modes of negligence. The same general principle governs, that air carriers owe a duty to people on the ground as well as to passengers and crew.
The Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-42, 115 Stat. 230 (2001) (codified at 49 U.S.C. § 40101) ("the Act"), passed in the weeks following the September 11 attacks, provided that those who bring suit "for damages arising out of the hijacking and subsequent crashes" must bring their suits in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Moreover, the Act provided that the governing law shall be "derived from the law, including choice of law principles, of the State in which the crash occurred unless such law is inconsistent with or preempted by Federal law." Act § 408(b)(2). Plaintiffs' individual pleadings have been consolidated into five master complaints, one for the victims of each crash and one for the property damage plaintiffs. Plaintiffs alleged that the airlines, airport security companies, and airport operators negligently failed to fulfill their security responsibilities, and in consequence, the terrorists were able to hijack the airplanes and crash them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The complaints further alleged that the owners and operators of the World Trade Center, World Trade Center Properties LLC and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, negligently designed, constructed, maintained, and operated the buildings, failing to provide adequate and effective evacuation routes and plans. Each of the defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The Aviation Defendants argued that they did not owe any duty to “ground victims.” On the other hand, The Port Authority and WTC Properties argued that they did not owe a duty to protect occupants in the towers against injury from hijacked airplanes and, even if they did, the terrorists' actions broke the chain of proximate causation, excusing any negligence by the WTC Defendants.
- Did the Aviation defendants owe any duty to “ground victims?”
- Did the Port Authority and WTC Properties owe a duty to protect occupants in the towers against injury from hijacked airplanes?
The court held that the aviation defendants owed a duty of care to screen passengers and items carried aboard to victims on the ground and that the crash of the airplanes was within the class of foreseeable hazards resulting from negligently performed security screening. The court held that New York's law of duty was not inconsistent with, or preempted by, federal law. Likewise, the World Trade Center defendants owed a duty to the occupants to create and implement adequate fire safety measures, even in the case of a fire caused by the hijackers. Because Virginia did not permit recovery on a strict liability theory in product liability cases, those counts were dismissed for the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. Plaintiffs' allegations that it was reasonably foreseeable that a failure to design a secure cockpit could contribute to a take-over of a cockpit by hijackers was sufficient to establish the airplane manufacturer's duty. The terrorists' unauthorized entry into the cockpit was not unforeseeable, and did not constitute an "intervening" or "superseding" cause that could, as a matter of law, break the chain of causation.
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