On March 20, 2012, in a far reaching opinion, the California Appellate Court for the Second District incurred into the territory usually occupied by the Federal Courts of Appeals, by holding that Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) safety standards, published in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5300-13 (“Advisory Circular”) do not preempt state tort law on the standard of care applicable to utilization of an airport’s “Runway Protection Zone” (“RPZ”).
The case, Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. v. County of Ventura, 2012 WL 920322 (Cal.App.2 Dist.)), concerns damage to an aircraft owned by Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. (“Sierra”), allegedly caused by a barrier erected within the RPZ at Camarillo Municipal Airport. The airport, owned and operated by Ventura County (“County”), erected the barrier for the apparent purpose of preventing runway incursions by police vehicles leasing space in part of the RPZ at the airport. The trial court upheld the County’s motion in limine to exclude evidence of state safety standards relating to “airport design and construction,” on the ground that Federal standards in the Advisory Circular preempt state tort law on the standard of care. The trial court’s holding was based on the Federal government’s “implied preemption” of safety standards at airports, and, thus, the foreclosure of Sierra’s negligence action based on a dangerous condition of public property under state tort law. Cal. Gov. Code § 835. The Appellate Court reversed on the ground that “Congress has not enacted an express preemption provision for FAA safety standards” and, thus, if preemption exists, it must be implied. The Appellate Court’s decision is flawed for at least two reasons.