Comair, Inc.; and Comair Services, Inc. v. Lexington-Fayette urban County Airport Corporation et. Al
2007-SC-000602-TG October 1, 2009
Opinion by Justice Noble. All sitting; all concur.
The estates of persons killed in a commercial airplane crash sued Comair, the flight operator. Comair then filed a third-party complaint against the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Airport Board, the LFUCG Airport Corporation and members of the board in their official capacities alleging negligence in operation of the airport where the accident occurred. The circuit court granted the third-party defendants motion to dismiss, holding they were entitled to immunity. Comair appealed and the Supreme Court transferred the case to its docket from the Court of Appeals.
The Court affirmed, holding that the airport board and airport corporation were both agencies of the LFUCG, exercising a function integral to state government by providing essential transportation infrastructure—and thus immune from suit. In reaching this decision, the Court moved away from the two-pronged test for sovereign immunity set forth in Berns (1: direction and control by central state government; 2: supported by funds from the state treasury).
The Court concluded the Berns test was overly simple and limiting and that it did not lend itself to analyzing municipal entities. Instead, the Court held a preferable approach is a case-by-case analysis of a) the origins of the organization seeking immunity (i.e. state, county, municipal) to determine the level of immunity enjoyed by the “parent” entity; and b) whether the organization exercised a function integral to state government. The Court rejected Comair’s argument that the airport board was engaged in a purely proprietary function—distinguishing providing transportation services from providing transportation infrastructure (terminals, runways, etc.). The Court concluded that the latter was a “quintessentially governmental function.”