State Public Policy Claim Against Airline Preempted Because the Federal Aviation Act Occupies the Field of Aviation Safety

As Mr. Ventress learned the hard way – after three trips to the Ninth Circuit – it is tough to sue an airline for safety violations and/or termination for reporting safety violations.

Mr. Ventress claimed he was retaliated against as a flight engineer because he reported safety concerns. The case took three trips to the Ninth Circuit. In the first appeal, Ventress v. Japan Airlines (Ventress I) , 486 F. 3d 1111 (2007), the Ninth Circuit held that the Friendship Commerce and Navigation Treaty did not bar or preempt Mr. Ventress’ claims. In the second trip to the Ninth Circuit, it held that the Airline Deregulation Act did not bar or preempt Mr. Ventress’ claims. Ventress v. Japan Airlines (Ventress II), 603 F.3d. 676 (2010).

However, Mr. Ventress wasn’t so lucky on his third journey to the Ninth Circuit, which held that Mr. Ventress’ public policy/safety claims were barred by the Federal Aviation Act (FAA). The Court held that the claims would require the jury to decide safety questions that are governed by the FAA which occupies the field of aviation safety. Ventress v. Japan Airlines (Ventress III) 747 F.3d 716 (2014).

Although not a good outcome for Mr. Ventress, this is a fairly unique outcome limited to industries whose safety is carefully and extensively regulated by the federal government, such as the airline industry. Others should not be deterred from bringing state law public policy claims if, for example, fired for reporting a safety or other public policy concern.

June 27, 2014 Jody LeWitter
Public Policy