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Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc v. the County of Ventura

March 20, 2012

SIERRA PACIFIC HOLDINGS, INC., PLAINTIFF AND APPELLANT,
v.
THE COUNTY OF VENTURA, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



(Super. Ct. No. 56-2009-00336721- CU-PO-VTA) (Ventura County) Kent L. Kellegrew, Judge Superior Court County of Ventura

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yegan, Acting P.J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Here we hold that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety "standards" in an Advisory Circular do not preempt state tort law on the standard of care applicable to an airport's "runway protection zone" (RPZ). These non-mandatory federal standards are not FAA regulations and do not have the force and effect of law.

The County of Ventura (County) owns and operates Camarillo Airport. Sierra Pacific Holdings, Inc. (Sierra), sued County for allegedly creating a dangerous condition at the airport that resulted in damage to Sierra's aircraft. Sierra appeals from the judgment in favor of County. It contends that the trial court erroneously concluded that state tort law on the standard of care is impliedly preempted by safety standards in an FAA advisory circular. We reverse.

Factual and Procedural Background

The runway at Camarillo Airport is 6,000 feet long. At the end of the runway, there is a 3,000-foot-long paved area. From the air, this paved area appears to be a continuation of the runway but, unlike the runway, it is marked with yellow chevrons. A manual published by the FAA states that yellow chevrons "are used to show pavement areas aligned with the runway that are unusable for landing, takeoff, and taxiing."

The FAA published Advisory Circular No. 150/5300-13, which contains its "standards and recommendations for airport design." (Hereafter "Advisory Circular".) It is signed by Leonard E. Mudd, former Director of the Office of Airport Safety and Standards.*fn1 Pursuant to the Advisory Circular, the first 1,000 feet of the 3,000-foot-long paved area is in the "runway safety area" (RSA), which must be "free of objects." (Advisory Circular, ch. 3, § 305.a.(4).) The RSA is "[a] defined surface surrounding the runway prepared or suitable for reducing the risk of damage to airplanes in the event of an undershoot, overshoot, or excursion from the runway." (Id., ch. 1, § 2.) The remaining 2,000 feet of the paved area is in the RPZ. The RPZ is "[a]n area off the runway end to enhance the protection of people and property on the ground." (Ibid.)

Approximately 100 feet after the end of the 1000-foot-long RSA, County erected an 18-inch-high barrier across the paved area in the RPZ. Before the barrier was erected, someone had driven a vehicle from the paved area of the RPZ onto the runway. Sierra's expert witness declared: "Apparently, [County] had been leasing space beyond the . . . end of the runway to the California Highway Patrol, and other training vehicles, and the stated purpose of the barrier was to prevent those vehicles from inadvertently going onto the runway in what is commonly referred to as a 'runway incursion.' "

In September 2008 the pilot of an aircraft owned by Sierra took off from Camarillo Airport. Shortly after take-off, the aircraft lost power. The pilot made an emergency landing in the middle of the runway and was unable to stop before the runway ended. The aircraft continued through the 1,000-foot-long RSA, then entered the paved area of the RPZ, flew over the barrier there, landed, traveled to the end of the paved area, "entered a dirt field and flipped over."

In February 2009 Sierra filed a complaint for negligence against County. Sierra alleged that County's negligent erection of the barrier in the paved area of the RPZ was a proximate cause of damage to the aircraft: "[T]he pilot was required to avoid the [barrier], by releasing the brakes and hopping over it, and thereby lost vital time and stopping distance. Because of the maneuver required to avoid hitting the [barrier], the pilot was unable to stop the aircraft on the available pavement following the maneuver . . . , and [the] aircraft careened off the end of the pavement, where it overturned in the dirt field . . . and sustained substantial damage." Sierra claimed damages totaling $372,986.

County filed a motion in limine to preclude Sierra "from introducing evidence of safety standards relating to airport design and construction, other than the standards established by the federal government." County argued that, in the RPZ where the barrier had been erected, federal safety standards in the Advisory Circular preempted state tort law on the standard of care.

The trial court granted the motion in limine. It concluded "that the area where the physical obstruction was present on the ground . . . was governed by standards set forth by the FAA." County's counsel interjected: "For the record, your honor, the standards are found in [the Advisory Circular]."

Sierra announced that it was unable to proceed because its negligence action was based on a dangerous condition of public property under state tort law. (Gov. Code, ยง 835.) Sierra conceded that County had complied with all FAA regulations. The parties stipulated to the entry of judgment in County's ...


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