By Alan Hoffman on September 8, 2017

AirplaneLast April, in a case closely followed by the aviation industry, the Third Circuit reversed a District Court order granting summary judgment to Textron Lycoming in a fatal Cessna 172 accident case on the ground that the plaintiffs’ design defect claims were preempted by the Federal Aviation Act. The Third Circuit held that the District Court erred in applying field preemption to plaintiff’s tort design defect claims, and remanded the case for further proceedings.[1].

On remand, Lycoming renewed its motion for summary judgment, asserting that the defective design claims were subject to conflict preemption under the Third Circuit’s ruling. The District Court agreed, holding on August 3, 2017 that plaintiff’s claims against Lycoming were preempted and lacked proximate cause, and sustained Lycoming’s summary judgment motion.[2].

The case arose from a July, 2005 fatal accident involving a Cessna 172N piloted by decedent David Sikkelee. At the time of the crash, Sikkelee had logged a total of 68 hours of dual and solo flight time, of which 5.6 hours were logged in the preceding year, and only 1.8 hours were in a 172. In the suit, the plaintiff’s personal representative alleged that the carburetor throttle body screws of the Cessna’s Lycoming O-320 engine came loose due to a design defect, causing loss of power. The engine, which was manufactured in 1969, was stored for 29 years before it was installed in the accident aircraft in 1998. Following a lightning strike, it was removed and overhauled in 2004, at which time an aftermarket carburetor was substituted for the original equipment model installed by Lycoming at manufacture.  Plaintiff contended that the aftermarket carburetor was defective, and that Lycoming was liable for it because such substitution was foreseeable.

The District Court found that the applicable FAA regulations precluded Lycoming from deviating from the design the FAA had approved at the time of manufacture in 1969, and that when the FAA issued the engine type certificate to Lycoming, it explicitly approved the particular carburetor specified on the type certificate data sheet as “the only carburetor that could be installed in the engine.” Citing a brief submitted by the FAA during the appeal, the court further found that, “any type design change (that is, any change affecting any element of the type design supporting a type certificate) would require FAA approval.”  It held that there was no genuine dispute of material fact that Lycoming could not independently comply with the FAA regulations and Pennsylvania tort law, and that plaintiff’s tort claims were therefore preempted under the Third Circuit’s 2016 ruling.

Additionally, the District Court held that Lycoming could not be liable under Pennsylvania’s strict product liability law because the plaintiff conceded that the engine was not defective in any respect when manufactured in 1969, and that Lycoming could not foresee the substantial modifications its engine would ultimately undergo before the subject accident 36 years later. The lapse of time alone, the court held, was sufficient to warrant a grant of summary judgment. For the same reasons, it held that the negligence claims also failed, saying, “Plaintiff has not articulated what precise duty Lycoming breached and what precise remedial measures Lycoming could have taken that would have altered the eventual outcome.”  Finally, the court pointed out that plaintiff had already recovered $2 million via a settlement with the firm that installed the aftermarket carburetor involved in the accident.

Given the significance of the issues, the interest and attention the case has attracted, and the efforts and resources lavished on it by the parties, a further appeal can be expected. And so, almost 50 years after Lycoming assembled the engine, 19 years after its installation in the aircraft, 13 years after the allegedly defective carburetor was installed on the engine, 12 years after the accident, and 10 years after suit was filed, the Sikkelee saga seems destined to continue.


[1] Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corporation, et al., 822 F.3d 680 (3d Cir. 2016).  See “Air Safety: Federal Preemption of Aircraft Design Defect Claims,” Industry Insider, April 25, 2016, http://tmtindustryinsider.com/2016/04/air-safety-federal-preemption-of-aircraft-design-defect-claims/

[2] Sikkelee v. Avco Corporation, et al., __ F.Supp.3d___, 2017 WL 3317545 (M.D. Pa. 2017).