Kentucky Federal Court Finds a Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction over a Case Involving a Drone Shot Down While Flying over Another’s Private Property (Boggs v. Merideth)

The Policy

What it does

Declines to recognize federal jurisdiction over a claim that a person on private property trespassed on the possessions of another when he shot their drone from the air over his property.

Synopsis

In Boggs v. Merideth, 2017 WL 1088093 (W.D. Ky. 2017), Boggs filed a complaint seeking several declaratory judgments and an award of $1,500 for the damage his drone sustained when Merideth shot it from the air over Merideth’s private property. The court dismissed Boggs’ complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The federal courts have only limited jurisdiction, and jurisdiction in this case hinged on whether Boggs had adequately shown that his case constituted a federal question. Boggs chose to pursue this designation based on the theory that his state law claims implicated significant federal issues. Boggs argued that his complaint involved significant federal issues because it raised the question of the boundaries of federal versus private airspace.

The court ruled that Boggs failed to demonstrate that his requested declaratory judgment and state law trespass to chattels claim constituted a federal question. The primary basis for the court’s ruling was that Boggs failed to show that the federal question involved was “substantial.”

In determining substantiality, the court stated that Boggs had not adequately shown that the question of whether his drone was flying on federal or private property was “significant to the federal system as a whole.” Furthermore, Federal Aviation Administration (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.”

The court declined to reach the substance of the case and instead dismissed on a procedural basis. This means that it is still unclear from a federal level whether a drone flight over private property constitutes a trespass, and at what height it becomes acceptable.

Context

The Science

Science Synopsis

An unmanned aircraft (“drone”) is defined by FAA as “an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft,” namely without a human operator on board (Public Law 112-95, Section 331(8)). A drone is part of an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) that also includes an outside controller capable of remotely communicating with the drone. The FAA projects growth in annual UAS sales from $1.9 million in 2016 to $4.3 million by 2020.

Drones are operated by both commercial enterprises and hobbyists for a wide range of purposes from photography to emergency response to agricultural analyses. Consumer drones commonly carry cameras and are capable of recording images and other information indicating potential privacy issues associated with their use over or near private property.

Relevant Experts

Mary “Missy” Cummings, PhD, is Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Duke University and the Director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory and Duke Robotics. Her research interests include human-unmanned vehicle interaction, human-autonomous system collaboration, and the ethical and social impact of technology.


The Debate