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Yang v. Boeing Co.

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

December 16, 2013

JINHUA YANG and JINGTAO XIE, as Guardians Ad Litem and Parents of Minor JIAQI XIE, Case related to Plaintiffs,
v.
THE BOEING COMPANY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

HARRY D. LEINENWEBER, District Judge.

Before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motions to Remand. For the reasons stated herein, the Motions are granted.

I. BACKGROUND

These cases arise out of the July 6, 2013 crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 into the seawall at San Francisco International Airport ("SFO"). They are consolidated for purposes of the Motions to Remand.

Flight 214 carried 291 passengers and 16 crew members from Seoul, South Korea to San Francisco, California. Nearly all of the eleven-hour flight occurred over the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the flight, the aircraft was approaching SFO on a planned seventeen-mile, straight-in approach over the San Francisco Bay (the "Bay"). At SFO, the water and the runway are separated by a seawall; the ground is level with the top of the seawall, and water level is some distance below.

On its approach, the plane was traveling too low and too slow. Just before the plane reached the runway, the landing gear got caught on the seawall, snapped apart from the plane, and fell into the Bay. A portion of the tail fell into the water as well. The plane skidded, out of control, onto the runway. Many passengers were injured, and three lost their lives.

The aircraft in question was a 777-200 jumbo jet manufactured by Defendant Boeing ("Boeing"). Of crucial importance for any aircraft is the certification process. The 777 was first certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (the "FAA") and entered commercial service in 1995. The 777-200 is a longer-range 777, also first produced and certified in 1995. The accident aircraft was delivered to Asiana in 2006.

Pursuant to its statutory authority, the FAA oversees the certification process but delegates many certification functions to private citizens who serve as "FAA delegates." The airplane involved in the accident was certified by Boeing employees who, while acting as FAA delegates, approved the aircraft as safe for flight. Defendant explains that the aircraft at issue was subjected to hundreds of different tests and certifications, all conducted under FAA supervision, before the airplane was certified as airworthy.

Plaintiffs were passengers on the plane and brought these lawsuits against Boeing alleging state law claims for product liability, negligence, and willful and wanton conduct. They contend that defectively designed systems - including the autothrottle, the flight control system, and the low airspeed warning - contributed to the accident. Defendant removed these cases to this federal court on two jurisdictional grounds: admiralty jurisdiction and federal officer jurisdiction. Plaintiffs now move to remand and argue that neither of these purported bases provides the Court with subject matter jurisdiction.

The remand motions pose difficult jurisdictional questions. In cases such as these, whether the Court has admiralty or federal officer jurisdiction can turn on details that are far removed from the merits of the case. The Court appreciates the excellent briefs provided by counsel for both sides.

II. ADMIRALTY JURISDICTION

Any civil action brought in state court can be removed to federal district court if the district court would have had original jurisdiction over the action. 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). District courts have original jurisdiction over civil cases "of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1). A party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction over a tort claim "must satisfy conditions both of location and of connection with maritime activity." Grubhart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527, 534 (1995). To fulfill the location requirement, the tort must have occurred on navigable water, or if the injury was suffered on land, it must have been caused by a vessel on navigable water. Id.

Historical cases illuminate what it means for a tort to occur on the water. In Smith & Son v. Taylor, the plaintiff represented a decedent who was standing on a wharf (considered an extension of land) and knocked into water by a sling operated from a ship. Smith & Son v. Taylor, 276 U.S. 179, 182 (1928). The tort occurred on land because "the blow by the sling was what gave rise to the cause of action, " and that blow "was given and took effect while the deceased was upon the land." Id. In another case, Minnie v. Port Huron Terminal Co., the Court was presented facts converse to Taylor. Minnie v. Port Huron Terminal Co., 295 U.S. 647 (1935). In Minnie, the plaintiff was standing on a boat when he was struck by a crane that was operated on land. Id. at 647. Because the injury was due to the hit that plaintiff sustained while standing "on the vessel in navigable water, " the tort occurred on the water and thus the court had admiralty jurisdiction. Id. at 648.

In neither case did it matter where the victim ended up after the tort - in fact, the Taylor decedent fell from the land to the water, while the Minnie plaintiff fell from the boat onto land. Similarly, it did not matter in Taylor that the negligence was caused by a person on the water, nor did it matter in Minnie that the tort was caused by a person on land. These cases teach that the tort arises where and when the injury occurs, not where the victim ends up and not at the situs of the operative negligence. Courts today express this principle by explaining that, for the "locality" ...


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