Asiana Airlines flight 214 and admiralty jurisdiction

Junhong v. Boeing Co., No. 14-1825 (7th Cir. July 8, 2015).

Passengers on Asiana Airlines flight 214, which crashed on final approach into SFO in 2013, sued Boeing in Illinois state court. Boeing removed the case to federal court. The Seventh Circuit, speaking through Judge Easterbrook, now decides that the removal was proper. This case falls within the federal courts’ admiralty jurisdiction.

The court holds that the district court had admiralty jurisdiction because, while SFO crashed on dry land and not on navigable water, the alleged cause of the accident occurred over navigable water. And it doesn’t matter that the cause occurred over, rather than on, navigable water:

An airplane, just like an ocean-going vessel, moves passengers and freight from one continent to another. It crosses swaths of the high seas that are outside of any nation’s territory, and parts of the seas adjacent to the United States but outside any state’s territory. It is a traditional, and important, function of admiralty law to supply a forum and a set of rules for accidents in international commerce. . . . 

. . . [J]ust as judges have not doubted that Congress can establish an air force even though the Constitution mentions only an army and a navy, so judges have concluded that airplanes over navigable waters should be treated the same as vessels.

The court does limit its holding, however. Flights over the continental United States don’t fall within admiralty jurisdiction even when they’re crossing over navigable waters. “But Asiana 214 was a trans-ocean flight,” says the Seventh Circuit, and admiralty jurisdiction “includes accidents caused by problems that occur in trans-ocean commerce.”