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Miller v. Northwest Airlines

Decided: February 13, 1992.


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.

J.h. Coleman, Stern and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Coleman, J.h., P.J.A.D.



The novel issue raised in this appeal is whether plaintiff's State law tort claims are preempted by the Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C.A.App. § 1301 et seq. (Act). The trial Judge dismissed the complaint prior to trial because of "the provisions of pre-emption under the Federal Aviation Act" and because of the "lack of jurisdiction." The dismissal was without prejudice. We reverse and reinstate the complaint.

Plaintiff, a resident of Toms River, New Jersey, purchased a round trip ticket from defendant Northwest Airlines to travel from Newark International Airport to Taiwan. On his September 20, 1989 return flight, he had to stop in Seoul, Korea, and Detroit, Michigan. While in Seoul, plaintiff purchased a cigarette lighter which was shaped like a toy pistol. The lighter remained in its gift case and was placed into plaintiff's carry-on attache case. He boarded Northwest flight No. 30 in Seoul and flew into Detroit where he was cleared by the United States Customs Agency with the cigarette lighter in his attache case.

Before boarding the Northwest plane for the last leg of his flight to Newark, plaintiff had to pass through the boarding security system. Plaintiff approached the security area and placed his attache case on a conveyor belt that moved it through the x-ray screening device in preparation for boarding. After the attache case passed through the x-ray monitor, plaintiff was asked by a member of the security force whether he had an object in the attache case which resembled a small handgun. The attache case was removed from the monitor. The facts are disputed as to what precisely occurred thereafter.

For purposes of this appeal, we will accept plaintiff's version based on the complaint and his answers to interrogatories since the case was dismissed prior to trial. Plaintiff alleges that he removed the lighter from its gift box and demonstrated to the security person that it was only a lighter by lighting a cigarette. A member of the security force employed by defendant JJ Security took the lighter and refused to give plaintiff a receipt. Willistine Hogan, an employee of JJ Security, and Frederick Huston, an employee of Northwest Airlines, detained plaintiff. Plaintiff alleges that Ms. Hogan advised him that he was under arrest and that she had requested the Detroit Police Department to send some police officers to take him into custody.

Two Detroit police officers arrived; one of them told plaintiff he was not under arrest. Plaintiff was then permitted to board

his flight after surrendering possession of the lighter to one of the officers. The lighter was mailed to plaintiff by the Detroit Sheriff's Department.

Plaintiff filed a complaint against Northwest Airlines, JJ Security and Willistine Hogan. Plaintiff alleged various State law claims, including false arrest, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress as well as other torts.*fn1 The complaint was dismissed as to JJ Security and Hogan for lack of personal jurisdiction. There is no appeal from those dismissals. Plaintiff appeals only from the dismissal as to Northwest Airlines. In his appeal, plaintiff contends that New Jersey has concurrent jurisdiction under the Act and that his State law claims are not preempted by the Act. We do not reach the issue of concurrent jurisdiction because no relief under federal law is sought under the complaint.

The preemption doctrine is grounded in the supremacy clause of the federal Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2 which mandates that when federal law and state law are not consistent, state law must yield. U.S. Const., art. VI, cl. 2. This supremacy prevails with federal statutes, regulations, and decisional law of the United States Supreme Court over state decisional law, state common law, state statutory law and regulations. Feldman v. Lederle Laboratories, 125 N.J. 117, 134-135, 592 A.2d 1176 (1991), (petition for cert. filed October 22, 1991) (No. 91-685); Maher v. New Jersey Transit R.O., 125 N.J. 455, 463-465, 593 A.2d 750 (1991); Dewey v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 121 N.J. 69, 77-78, 577 A.2d 1239 (1990). The preemption doctrine exists "to avoid conflicting regulation of conduct by various official bodies [that] might have some authority over the subject matter." Amalgamated Ass'n of

Street, Elec. Ry. Motor Coach Employees v. Lockridge, 403 U.S. 274, 285-286, 91 S. Ct. 1909, 1917, 29 L. Ed. 2d 473, 482 (1971), quoted in ...

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