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Estate of Becker v. AVCO Corp.

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

January 26, 2017

ESTATE OF VIRGIL VICTOR BECKER, JR., by its Personal Representative, Jennifer L. White, Petitioner,
v.
AVCO CORPORATION; PRECISION AIRMOTIVE LLC; VOLARE CARBURETORS LLC; MARVEL-SCHEBLER CARBURETORS LLC; TEMPEST PLUS MARKETING GROUP LLC; AERO ACCESSORIES, INC.; SYNERGY SYSTEMS, INC.; CASHMERE MOLDING, INC.; CREST AIRPARK, INC.; PREMIER AIRCRAFT ENGINES, INC; AUBURN FLIGHT SERVICE, INC; and ESTATE OF BRENDA L. HOUSTON, by its Personal Representative PAUL THOMAS CREWS, Defendants, and FORWARD TECHNOLOGY INDUSTRIES, INC., Respondent.

          OWENS, J.

         Virgil Victor Becker, a retired doctor, was killed in a plane crash. His estate (Estate) claimed that a faulty carburetor caused the crash. Forward Technology Industries Inc. (FTI) built a component for that carburetor. The Estate brought numerous claims against FTI, including a state product liability claim implicating a faulty carburetor component. FTI moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (Federal Aviation Act), Pub. L. No. 103-305, 108 Stat. 1569, preempted state law.

         In certain circumstances, federal law and state law will interact in such a way that the federal law will take priority and preempt state law. The Federal Aviation Act does not include an express preemption clause. However, federal law can preempt state law if it pervasively occupies a particular field of law. The Third Circuit recently found that federal aviation regulations do not preempt the state product liability of an aviation systems manufacturer because they are not so pervasive as to indicate congressional intent to preempt state law. We follow the Third Circuit and find that the Federal Aviation Act does not preempt state law. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

         FACTS

         In 2008, a single-propeller airplane crashed near McMurray, Washington. The pilot and two passengers were killed in the crash. One of those passengers was Becker, a retired doctor. Though the parties dispute the ultimate cause of the crash, the Estate claims that the engine stalled due to a poorly manufactured carburetor and that this engine failure led to the crash and the death of Becker.

         The plane's fuel system was designed and produced by Precision Airmotive LLC (Precision). Though Precision assembled the final product, it contracted with several other companies to produce various components for the fuel system, including the carburetor. FTI was one of those companies.

         FTI normally manufactures machines designed to weld plastic parts. Sometime before 1997, it sold Precision a machine designed to heat and hermetically seal two plastic components together. Though Precision bought the machine and three tools capable of sealing three different types of carburetor components, it subsequently contracted FTI to use two of those tools to weld carburetor floats for Precision.

         Precision would procure two plastic components from a plastics manufacturer and ship those components to FTI. Using Precision's tools, FTI would weld the plastic components into a completed, sealed carburetor float. After a batch of these floats was completed, FTI would test them and send them to Precision.

         FTI produced floats for Precision from at least 1997 until 2005. During that time, it produced over 30, 000 floats. FTI understood that it was responsible for generating carburetor floats that would eventually be placed in airplane engines. It also knew that the weld on the float needed to be perfect for the float to function properly. Around 2001, a carburetor containing one of these floats was installed in the plane that crashed and killed Becker.

         During its investigation into the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board examined the carburetor of the downed airplane. The investigation revealed that one chamber of the float was completely filled with aviation fuel. A float filled with fuel can force the engine's fuel feed to remain open, causing the engine to flood and stall out. The investigator did not explain what caused the float to leak and fill with fuel. However, the Estate asserts that the float leaked because of an imperfect weld applied by FTI.

         In 2010, the Estate and another plaintiff filed suit against FTI and 11 other defendants. The Estate claimed numerous tort violations, alleging FTI and the other defendants had caused an unreasonably dangerous condition in the carburetor float and that this condition caused the airplane's engine to stall, resulting in the crash that caused Becker's death.

         FTI moved for summary judgment. It argued that because of pervasive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, federal law occupied the field of aviation safely and that all of the Estate's state law claims were preempted. In the alternative, FTI argued that the Estate could bring a product liability action only under the Washington tort reform and product liability act (WPLA), chapter 7.72 RCW.[1]

          King County Superior Court granted the motion for summary judgment on federal preemption grounds, declining to address the WPLA issue. The Estate subsequently filed a motion for reconsideration and a motion for leave to file a third amended complaint. The trial court denied both motions.

         The Estate and the other plaintiff settled the remaining claims, deconsolidated their cases, and voluntarily dismissed the remaining ...


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