Aviation Crash Cases Can Remain in Alaska State Courts

The Alaska Personal Injury Law Group recently obtained a favorable ruling on a matter of great importance for aviation law in Alaska. Apparently reversing a prior contrary decision, the Federal District Court ruled that aviation wrongful death and personal injury claims cannot normally be transferred (“removed”) from Alaska State Courts to the Federal District Court at the request of the defendant.

The Alaska Personal Injury Law Group (APILG) has extensive experience in the area of aviation accident litigation. APILG Attorney Neil O’Donnell, representing Port Heiden resident Ted Matson, filed a wrongful death action for the loss of Mr. Matson’s wife in the crash of a Peninsula Airways (“PenAir”) Piper Saratoga near Port Heiden. The wrongful death action was filed in the Alaska Superior Court in Naknek, the court closest to Port Heiden and closest to the aircraft crash site. PenAir, however, transferred (“removed”) the case to the Federal District Court in Anchorage arguing that a recent Ninth Circuit decision, Montalvo v. Spirit Airlines, 508 F.3d 464 (9th Cir. 2007), made all aviation-related wrongful death and personal injury claims removable to federal court. The Federal District Court in Alaska had previously agreed with this argument in another aviation personal injury case (not handled by the Alaska Personal Injury Law Group) that had been removed from the Alaska Superior Court in Bethel. Alexie v. Hageland Aviation, Case No. 4:07-cv-0031-RRB.

The effect of the Alexie case would have been to allow any defendant to transfer any aviation-related death or injury claim out of the Alaska State Courts and into the Federal District Court in Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau. Plaintiffs in rural Alaska often want their cases heard in local state courts for both practical and strategic reasons. For example, local rural jurors appreciate the importance of lost subsistence services, often a major portion of a rural plaintiff’s economic damages. Juries in federal court must also reach a unanimous verdict. Since the plaintiff has the burden of proof, one or two “holdout” jurors can derail what would otherwise have been a persuasive and successful claim. In contrast, juries in Alaska State Courts can return a verdict based on the vote of only 10 of the 12 jurors.

The Alaska Personal Injury Group was able to convince the Federal District Court that the correct rule is that aviation wrongful death and personal injury claims are not normally removable from state court to federal court. The Federal District Court accordingly ruled that “for the reasons argued by plaintiff,” Mr. Matson’s case must be returned to Alaska State Court.