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Lawsuits & Litigation

Trespassing Drone Fair Game?

— March 30, 2017

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell dismissed a lawsuit that sought damages against a property owner who shot down a hobbyist’s trespassing drone in 2015.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Russell dismissed a lawsuit that sought damages against a property owner who shot down a hobbyist’s drone in 2015.  The issue in the suit was whether John Boggs’ drone was trespassing or if it was flying in airspace within the jurisdiction of the federal government when the incident occurred.  Property owner William Merideth is the self-proclaimed “drone slayer”.  Hobbyist David Boggs filed the lawsuit, and had sought a declaratory judgement indicating the drone is an “aircraft” under federal law, that Boggs’ drone was operating in U.S. airspace, and that property owners can’t shoot at drones in this airspace.  

Property owner shot down trespassing drone
Image Courtesy of Wired

Boggs lawsuit sought $1,500 in damages.  “In my mind, it wouldn’t have been any different had he been standing in my backyard with a video camera,” Merideth stated in an earlier interview, who believes he had every right to mutilate the hovering object.  The proposals say commercial drones can’t be operated over a person not involved in the operation.  However, nearly two-thirds of states have developed their own regulations regarding drone operation.

The issue of drones falls in line with the The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1946 case, United States v. Causby, which held that a chicken farmer could be compensated for the loss to his business caused by military planes that barely missed the tops of trees on his property.  The Supreme Court didn’t say how far the farmer’s property rights extended into the sky, but it found he owns “at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land.”  Witnesses said Boggs’ drone was flying below the trees, therefore trespassing into Merideth’s space, leading a judge to dismiss criminal charges against Merideth in October. Boggs says images taken from the drone itself show it was flying about 200 feet above the ground.  The drone industry “is growing quickly—and it’s to some extent being stifled by the legal uncertainty surrounding these issues,” his attorney, Frost Brown Todd lawyer James Mackler, said.

Property owner shot down trespassing drone
Image Courtesy of ABA Journal

Judge Russell wrote in an opinion issued on March 21 stating the suit was essentially a garden variety state tort claim, and should not have been taken up in federal court.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is involved in enforcing regulations governing federal airspace.  However, Russell wrote, “its interest in applying those regulations in the context of a state tort law claim for trespass to chattels is limited or nonexistent.”  He concluded by stating the FAAA rules and regulations are ancillary issues in the case.  Legal experts agree with the judge’s decision, and say it’s not surprising he ruled as he did. The Federal Aviation Administration has developed proposed drone rules, but they have little to say about property rights and trespassing.  

Mackler will speak with Boggs about filing an appeal to the judge’s decision.  “This remains an extraordinarily important issue,” Mackler said. “We desperately need clarification from this issue and that has to come from the federal level.  Drones are continuing to be shot down.  There have been many incidents.  This has to be an issue that is addressed, but we have not decided whether we are going to file our appeal.”


Federal judge tosses suit against property owner who shot down hovering drone

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