The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against the United States arising out of a 1997 mid-air collision over Chicago, Illinois. At the time, both of the aircraft were receiving flight control services from the Meigs tower which was operated by private controllers under contract with the FAA. The estates sued multiple parties in multiple lawsuits. However, the claims against the U.S. were consolidated into one federal court action.
In Alinsky v. U.S., the plaintiffs brought claims against the U.S. under the Federal Tort Claims Act alleging that the U.S was responsible for the accident because it had a non-delegable duty to provide air traffic control services and was thus liable for the negligence of the Meigs tower controller who failed to inform the pilots that the two planes were on a collision course. They also argued that the U.S. was negligent for allowing an allegedly untrained and unqualified controller to staff the Meigs tower and by delaying approval for additional staffing at the tower. The District Court granted summary judgment to the United States on several claims and after a trial on the remaining claims, the court ruled in favor of the U.S. on those claims as well. The plaintiffs then appealed.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit held that the U.S. was not responsible for the midair because the Meigs tower controller was not an employee, but rather an independent contractor. As a result, the U.S. did not provide the allegedly negligent air traffic control services nor was it responsible for the training performed and staffing maintained by its independent contractor. The Court went on to note that the U.S. could delegate its duty to provide air traffic control and that it had, in fact, done so in the case of at least 130 other towers.
The Court went on to state that “[h]ere, Congress authorized the FAA to enter into contracts, as necessary, to carry out the functions of the FAA, and thus the government did not violate a specific mandatory statute, regulation or policy in hiring Midwest to provide training and oversight at Meigs. The plaintiffs also fail to identify any mandatory statute or regulation dictating how the FAA must oversee private contractors or assure the contractor complies with federal regulations and the contract provisions. Where the plaintiffs’ claim is premised on negligent oversight, such a showing is imperative.” Thus, any blame for the midair lay with the contract tower operator and not with the U.S.
This is another case where plaintiffs attempt to stretch the limits of the law to join as many deep-pocket defendants into a case as possible. It also squarely addresses the issue of delegation of duties by the government. Although some may argue the merits of whether the U.S. should be able to delegate its air traffic control duties to private parties (a similar debate to the one in connection with the FAA’s current contract with Lockheed Martin for operation of flight service stations), this case clearly states that the U.S. does have the authority to delegate those duties.