ADA preempts passenger’s negligence claims arising from impact with video monitor

Fawemimo v. American Airlines, Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 30, 2017).  While approaching her seat on a flight from JFK to LAX, the passenger/plaintiff hit her head on a video monitor mounted on a bulkhead wall of the 767 aircraft.  The plaintiff alleged in her pro se state court complaint against American that the monitor was “reckless and dangerous” because it “protruded from the wall in front and above of [her seat]” and “was painted to blend in with the wall.”  The plaintiff alleged that she sustained severe head and heart injuries due to the impact and that, under various negligence theories, she was entitled to compensatory damages exceeding $11 million and punitive damages exceeding $21 million.  The plaintiff also sought injunctive relief requiring that American remove certain seats close to the monitors and paint the walls and monitors different colors.

American removed the case to federal court and, after discovery, moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b), the preemption provision of the Airline Deregulation Act.  That provision states in part that “a State, political subdivision of a State, or political authority of at least 2 States may not enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation under this subpart.”  In support of its motion, American submitted an affidavit from the engineering manager of its 767-200 interiors group attesting that the video monitor installation in the subject aircraft complied with the applicable federal regulations and industry practices.

In analyzing American’s preemption argument, the court applied the three-factor test developed by then-District Judge Sotomayor in Rombom v. United Air Lines, which involves consideration of “whether the activity at issue in the claim is an airline service,” “whether the claim affects the airline service directly or tenuously, remotely, or peripherally” and “whether the underlying tortious conduct was reasonably necessary to the provision of the service.”  The court held that the plaintiff’s negligence claims were preempted under the Rombom test, reasoning as follows:  “first, the use and positioning of an in-flight monitor relates to an airline service; second, plaintiff’s claims concerning the placement of the monitors directly affects that service; and third, the placement of monitors near passenger seating was essential to the provision of safety-instruction videos and in-flight entertainment.”  The court added that the plaintiff’s claims, “if successful, could upset the federal interest in aircraft-cabin safety in favor of a patchwork of requirements concerning the placement of monitors and aircraft layout.”  Accordingly, the court granted American’s motion.

On February 28, 2017, the plaintiff filed a notice of appeal.


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