Boggs v. Merideth Crashes On Lack of Jurisdiction

UAV operators have kept a wary eye on Boggs v. Merideth, the Kentucky drone shoot-down case.  This case, which famously involved a drone operator who sought damages after his drone was shot down by a property owner, has now been dismissed. While the UAV industry had been concerned that the court’s decision could establish harmful precedent when it comes to operating drones over property, the court dismissed the decision on technical grounds and did not reach the substance of the case.

The facts of Boggs are both lurid and somewhat disputed, but there is no doubt that the plaintiff was operating a drone and that the defendant used a shotgun to bring it down.  The defendant, Merideth, argued that he was simply defending his property against aerial assault.  The case made an initial splash when authorities declined to prosecute the property owner, but it gained a second wind when the drone operator decided to seek compensation in federal court for the loss of his craft.  The plaintiff, Boggs, claimed that he had suffered a property loss when the defendant fired on his drone, and, anticipating the most likely defense, further argued that the defendant Merideth could not claim that he was simply defending his property because federal law had sole jurisdiction over the use of the national airspace.

The case thus presented the potential for a landmark decision on a key legal issue:  What is the scope of federal authority over the use of the airspace, and is there an “envelope” of airspace around private property that is not subject to federal control?  It was one of the first (and, so far, very few) cases to tee this issue up directly, and thus immediately popped onto the radar of every drone lawyer in the country.

Ultimately, though, the case was brought down before it ever reached the merits.  The court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that the case was really a state law claim dressed in federal garb. The court held that because the case only implicated federal law as, in essence, a response to an anticipated defense, there was not a federal question.  As the court explained, “FAA regulations, at most, would constitute ancillary issues in this case, in which the heart of Boggs’ claim is one for damage to his unmanned aircraft under Kentucky state law.” That is simply not enough to give a federal court jurisdiction.

With Boggs shot down, it will fall to other courts to decide the critical issue of how far federal jurisdiction extends when it comes to the operation of UAS.  One thing is for certain—this is a question that will come over the horizon again.   

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