The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) stipulates that federal law always takes precedence over any state law.
In regard to aviation cases, the Federal Aviation Act, which gives the government the power to broadly regulate the area of aviation via the Federal Aviation Administration, has no preemption clause explicitly written into it. However, some courts have held that Congress implied federal preemption of the entire field of aviation when it passed the act.
The leading case that established the idea of federal preemption of aviation was Abdullah v. American Airlines, Inc. in 1999. In that case, a passenger sought damages for injuries suffered during turbulence on a flight from New York to Puerto Rico. The original ruling was for the plaintiff based on local law, but on appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that Federal Aviation Regulation preempted local law and there was, by extension, “implied federal preemption of the entire field of aviation.”
However, in an apparent contradiction, the same court decided in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp. that federal preemption does not prevent an aircraft component manufacturer from being held liable for product defects under state law standards. In essence, according to the courts, the safety of aviation products is outside the preempted field.
While there is no general provision for federal jurisdiction or a federal cause of action in all aviation accidents, removal to federal court is only available where there is complete diversity among the plaintiff and the defendants, provided that the suit is not filed in a place where one of the defendants is a citizen. Federal preemption would also apply to cases where there is minimal diversity and if more than 75 individuals were killed in the subject crash.
Federal jurisdiction may also be invoked where a death or injury occurs on an international flight subject to the Warsaw or Montreal Conventions or where the United States or a foreign sovereign is named as a defendant.