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Bennett v. Southwest Airlines Co.

July 13, 2006

MARIKO L.A. BENNETT AND STANLEY L. PENN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CO., A TEXAS CORPORATION; THE BOEING COMPANY, A DELAWARE CORPORATION; AND THE CITY OF CHICAGO, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Charles P. Kocoras, Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter comes before the court on Plaintiffs' motions that we certify our order of April 20, 2006, for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

The complaints in this case arise out of the crash of Southwest Airlines ("Southwest") Flight 1248, a Boeing 737-700, on December 8, 2005, at Chicago's Midway International Airport ("Midway"). The plane allegedly overran a runway during landing, broke through the airport fence, and came to an eventual stop on Central Avenue near 55th Street. These two streets run along the northern and western perimeter of the airport. Plaintiffs were passengers on the aircraft or bystanders on the streets adjoining the airport.

Plaintiffs filed lawsuits in Illinois state court for personal injuries arising from the accident. The complaints allege various causes of action including negligence, conscious disregard for safety, and product liability. Though the contents of the complaints vary somewhat, all take issue at least in part with the actions of the airline and the pilot in deciding when, where, and how to land the plane. For instance, the complaint in the first-filed case, Bennett v. Southwest Airlines, Case No. 06 C 317, contends that Flight 1248 was a scheduled passenger flight from Baltimore to Chicago conducted under 14 C.F.R. 121, the regulation that applies to U.S.-registered civil airplanes with seats for 20 or more passengers operated by an air carrier or commercial operator. 14 C.F.R. § 119.1. It alleges, inter alia, that the pilot began an approach that was unsafe because of the weather, visibility, and runway conditions at the time. It also contends that the pilot "failed to abandon the approach before it was too late" and operated the flight in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations ("FARs"), specifically FAR 91.13(a). Furthermore, it alleges that the pilot operated the aircraft during the approach and landing contrary to the requirements and instructions set forth in the flight manual approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Finally, the complaint theorizes that the pilot put concerns for on-time departure for the next flight for the plane above the proper concern for the safety of the passengers.

Defendants Southwest, the City of Chicago (who maintains the runways and the airport facilities), and Boeing removed the case to our court. Several cases have followed the same track as Bennett, and they have all been consolidated for our consideration. Plaintiffs have all moved for remand of the cases to state court. On April 20, we denied these motions, concluding that federal question jurisdiction exists in this case. Plaintiffs now ask that we certify the order to the Seventh Circuit for interlocutory review.

LEGAL STANDARD

To qualify as a candidate for interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. §1292(b), the order in question must "involve[] a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion." 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). In addition, the district judge must believe that "an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation." Id. This formulation breaks down into four components, designed to ensure that § 1292(b) will be invoked only in exceptional cases, rather than where the parties simply disagree with a ruling of the trial judge and wish to have the ruling immediately examined. Ahrenholz v. Bd. of Trustees of Univ. of Ill., 219 F.3d 674, 676 (7th Cir. 2000). The first, the requirement that the order involve a "question of law" refers to an abstract legal issue regarding the meaning of a statutory provision, a constitutional provision, a federal regulation, or a federal common-law doctrine. Id. This legal issue must also be controlling in that it is likely to affect the future course of the litigation. Sokaogon Gaming Enterprise Corp. v. Tushie-Montgomery Associates, Inc., 86 F.3d 656, 659 (7th Cir. 1996). The issue must be one on which there is a substantial ground for a difference of opinion, which has been construed to be "synonymous with a substantial likelihood that appellant's position would prevail on appeal." Seven-Up Co. v. O-So Grape Co., 179 F. Supp. 167, 172 (S. D. Ill. 1959). Finally, the intermediate review should have the potential to bring the case to its ultimate resolution in a much faster and more efficacious way than would be possible if the issue was not addressed until the trial proceedings resulted in a final judgment.

DISCUSSION

1. Question of Law

In support of their motions for interlocutory appeal, Plaintiffs contend that there are no resolutions of factual issues necessary to determine the abstract legal question of whether federal question jurisdiction is present in this case. We agree. The well-pleaded complaint rule and the corollary doctrine of artful pleading provide the necessary framework within which we examined Plaintiffs' allegations. See Bastien v. AT&T Wireless Servs. Inc., 205 F.3d 983, 986 (7th Cir. 2000); Burda v. M. Ecker Co., 954 F.2d 434, 438 (7th Cir. 1992). Deciding whether the situation Plaintiffs' allege is one in which an exercise of federal jurisdiction is appropriate will involve the text of the complaint, our written order of April 20, our in-court remarks on May 16, 28 U.S.C. § 1331, the preemptive scope of federal aviation statutes and regulations, and the line of case law examining embedded issue federal question jurisdiction. Consequently, the consideration of the proposed appeal will require only treatment of an abstract legal issue, so the first requirement of § 1292(b) is satisfied.

2. That is Controlling

There is no diversity between the parties in this case. If we are incorrect and there is no federal question jurisdiction, the case should return to state court for consideration. If we are correct in our assessment, the case will remain before us and proceed accordingly. Thus, the issue to be considered on appeal will certainly affect the course of the ...


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