In Vreeland, etc. v. Ferrer, etc., et al., the Florida Supreme Court recently upheld the state’s “dangerous instrumentality” doctrine, finding that the nearly century old principle of law imposes vicarious liability for negligence on airplane owners, even where the plane is not within the owner’s immediate control or possession at the time of a crash. The Court also made clear that this doctrine is preempted by federal law only in limited circumstances.

Established by the court in Anderson v. So. Cotton Oil Co., 74 So. 975, 978 (Fla. 1917), the dangerous instrumentality doctrine is a Florida common law principle that imposes liability on the owner of an instrumentality that is “peculiarly dangerous in its operation” for injuries caused by the instrumentality’s negligent operation by anyone who uses it with the owner’s consent. The doctrine was first applied to aircraft in 1951. See Fire Insurance Co. v. Harrison, 190 F.2d 726 (5th Cir. 1951).

Danny Ferrer entered into a one year lease of an airplane from Aerolease of America, Inc. (Aerolease) in 2004. During the lease period, the plane crashed shortly after taking off from an airport in Lakeland. The pilot, Donald Palas, and his passenger, Jose Martinez, were killed in the crash. Ferrer was not on the plane when it crashed.

Plaintiff John K. Vreeland, in his capacity as the Martinez estate’s administrator, filed a wrongful death action against Aerolease, claiming that Aerolease: a) was liable and responsible for Palas’ negligence in his operation and inspection of the aircraft; b) negligently performed inspections and maintenance on the plane prior to leasing it, leaving it in a defective condition that directly contributed to the crash; and c) published false information concerning the condition of the aircraft, which Ferrer relied upon.

The trial court granted Aerolease’s summary judgment motion, ruling that although the dangerous instrumentality doctrine applies to the owner or lessor of an aircraft, the doctrine is preempted by 49 U.S.C. § 44112. This federal law provides that the owner or lessor of an aircraft is liable for injuries resulting from the negligent operation of the plane “on land or water” only for injuries caused while the aircraft is in possession of the owner, lessor or a secured party. On appeal, the Second District affirmed the trial court’s decision regarding vicarious liability.

Upon further review, the state supreme court quashed the Second District’s decision, ruling that the dangerous instrumentality doctrine is not preempted by § 44112. Specifically, after sifting through myriad judicial interpretations of the statute by judges in states across the country, the court determined that the use of the phrases “on land or water” and “on the surface of the earth” in § 44112 indicate that its limitation on liability “only applies to death, injury or damage that is caused to people or property that are physically on the ground or in the water.”

The court further reasoned that the statute applies only to individuals injured and property damaged while underneath the aircraft during its flight, ascent or descent. Thus, the court ruled that “because the death of Martinez occurred while he was a passenger in a plane that crashed – not on the ground beneath the plane – the wrongful death action filed by Vreeland is not preempted by section 44112.” The court remanded the case for proceedings consistent with this ruling.

The South Florida airplane accident lawyers at Anidjar & Levine pride ourselves in responsive, diligent, and cost-effective representation. If you or a loved one were involved in an aviation accident in south Florida, please take advantage of a free consultation offered by the personal injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. You can contact the firm’s Fort Lauderdale offices at (800) 747-3733, or submit an on-line “Contact Us” form.

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