Plane Crash Suit Given a Runway in Texas Law

     (CN) – Two Florida women who lost their loved ones in a Texas plane crash but were excluded from a suit involving other family may find relief, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     Paul Mazak had been piloting the private twin-engine plane carrying Richard Schippers, his son Shane Schippers and a third man named Malcolm Lavender out of Uvalde, Texas, on Oct. 26, 2009.
     The quartet had just finished a hunting trip at Mazak’s 8,000-acre cattle ranch and was bound for home in central Florida.
     A storm brought the plane down near Benavides, Texas, however, killing all four men.
     Richard’s daughter Denise Schippers and Shane’s mother, Sharon Cox-Estep, filed a 2011 complaint in Texas under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
     They blamed the fatal crash on faulty instructions from the Houston-based air traffic controllers with the Federal Aviation Administration.
     Though the personal representatives for the estates of Mazak and the Schippers had filed suit in Florida, the state’s Wrongful Death Act excludes Denise Schippers and Cox-Estep from seeking relief.
     The court in Texas nevertheless transferred this duo’s case to the Middle District of Florida, where it was consolidated with the other wrongful-death cases for pretrial and discovery purposes.
     Refusing to apply Texas law, the District Court then dismissed Schippers and Cox-Estep’s claims. Meanwhile, the government settled with the other plaintiffs.
     A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit reversed earlier this month, finding that the Federal Tort Claims Act requires a court to determine standing by first looking “to the law of the state where the act or omission occurred.”
     It is improper to emphasize the Florida residencies of Schippers and Cox-Estep, according to the ruling.
     “Because limiting potential beneficiaries limits recovery – which appears to be what will happen in this case if Florida law is held to apply to damages – and because the ‘only purpose’ of limiting the beneficiaries is to protect defendants – which should not be applied when the defendant, as here, is a non-domiciliary – the domicile of the plaintiffs is entitled to little weight in the choice-of-law analysis,” Judge C. Roger Vinson wrote for the panel.
     In a concurring opinion, Judge Emmett Ripley Cox expressed “reservations” about the majority’s analysis.
     “The threshold issue in this case is not whether the plaintiffs have capacity to sue,” Cox wrote. “It is whether these plaintiffs have a cause of action under the Federal Tort Claims Act – whether, in other words, the plaintiffs have a ‘right that can be enforced by legal action.'”

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