Whether an airline employee can avail himself of state whistleblower protections currently depends on which federal circuit he finds himself in. He should hope not to be in the Eighth Circuit, which continues to find state whistleblower laws preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), even where the employee reports serious safety violations (John A. Watson v. Air Methods Corp., No. 15-1900 (8th Cir. 2016)).
John W. was a flight paramedic for Air Methods Corp., which transports and provides in-flight medical care for patients being airlifted to hospitals. Air Methods is an “air carrier” for purposes of federal aviation regulations. John allegedly witnessed numerous federal safety violations by the flight crew, which he reported to Air Methods’ corporate office. After the company terminated his employment, he sued Air Methods in Missouri state court for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, claiming he was fired for reporting illegal activity to his superiors.
Air Methods removed the case to federal court, then sought dismissal based on the Eighth Circuit’s holding in Botz v. Omni Air International, 286 F.3d 488 (8th Cir. 2002). In Botz, the appeals court ruled the ADA preempted a state wrongful discharge claim in a case where a flight attendant had refused to work a round-trip international flight that exceeded maximum crew working hours. The district court granted Air Methods’ motion and John appealed.
The crux of the Botz ruling was ADA’s express preemption clause, which supersedes state laws and regulations “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.” Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court in Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374 (1992), the court in the instant case wrote: “This section has a ‘broad preemptive purpose,’ precluding state laws ‘specifically addressed to the airline industry’ and generally applicable laws that indirectly relate to air carriers’ rates, routes, or services.” Continue reading