Law School Case Brief
Vreeland v. Ferrer - 71 So. 3d 70 (Fla. 2011)
Congressional purpose is the ultimate touchstone in every pre-emption case. This is especially true given the presumption against preemption of traditional state law remedies. Where federal law preempts an area historically relegated to the states, even a statement of express preemption must be narrowly interpreted. A strong presumption exists against finding express preemption when the subject matter, such as the provision of tort remedies to compensate for personal injuries, is one that has traditionally been regarded as properly within the scope of the states' rights. Thus, express preemption clauses must be construed narrowly.
Danny Ferrer entered into an agreement to lease an airplane from Aerolease of America, Inc. (Aerolease) for a period of one year. On January 14, 2005, after taking off from an airport in Lakeland, Florida, the plane crashed. The pilot, Donald Palas, and his passenger, Jose Martinez, were killed in the crash. John Vreeland, in his capacity as administrator ad litem and personal representative of the Martinez estate, filed a wrongful death action against Aerolease. Aerolease moved for summary final judgment, contending that a provision of federal law, 49 U.S.C.S. § 44112 (1994), preempted Florida law. The trial court noted that under Florida's "dangerous instrumentality" doctrine, the owner or lessor of an aircraft was vicariously liable for the negligent conduct of a pilot. However, the court concluded that 49 U.S.C.S. § 44112 preempted Florida law and, because Aerolease was not in actual possession or control of the aircraft at the time of the crash, the company was not responsible under the provisions of the federal statute. On appeal, the state appellate court affirmed the decision of the trial court to the extent it held that the vicarious liability claim was preempted by federal law. The Supreme Court of Florida granted Vreeland's application for further review.
Was the vicarious liability claim preempted by 49 U.S.C.S. § 44112 (1994)?
The Supreme Court of Florida found that § 44112 was not intended to shield owners or lessors from negligence while in control or possession of the aircraft. According to the court, by adopting a federal law that specifically referenced damages or injuries that occurred on the surface of the earth, the 1948 Congress did not intend to preempt state law with regard to injuries to passengers or aircraft crew. Further, to not afford meaning to the words "on land or water" in current § 44112 would have not only been acting contrary to congressional intent, but would also have been failing to give meaning to every word in § 44112. Because the decedent's death occurred while he was a passenger in a plane that crashed -- not on the ground beneath the plane -- the wrongful death action was not preempted by § 44112.
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