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Drones buzz up against private property trespassing limits

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PHILADELPHIA — Drone operators may find themselves flying into some unfriendly skies as they look for the spot where private-property airspace ends and federal airspace begins, a panel of analysts said Tuesday.

The session on drone trespassing, which was held at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.’s annual convention in Philadelphia, sought to address the legal aspects of recent private property drone trespass cases.

“The things are ubiquitous,” said Timothy Crawley, an attorney with Anderson Crawley & Burke P.L.L.C. in Jackson, Mississippi. “You’re going to encounter them.”

Evan Jones, a partner, with Landrum & Shouse L.L.P. in Lexington, Kentucky, cited statistics stating that there are 230,000 aircraft in the United States, including airplanes, helicopters and gliders. In comparison, Mr. Jones said, there are 770,000 registered drones in the country, “not counting the ones bought in China on eBay.”

Catherine Kroll, vice president of risk management for Beachwood, Ohio-based DDR Corp. said her company saved “hundreds of thousands of dollars” by using drones instead of pilots for aerial photography.
Drones especially are tightly regulated by multiple jurisdictions. 

"There’s a confluence of regulations — federal, state, and local — that are all running into each other," Mr. Jones said.

Last June, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its Part 107 commercial drone regulation, which requires that operations be performed during the day and that the pilot in command have “visual line of sight” conditions to operate the drone.

Drones under the regulation must weigh less than 55 pounds and fly only up to 400 feet high and 100 miles per hour. Operators must be at least age 16 and have a remote pilot certificate, and must report any drone incidents that result in serious injuries or property damage to the FAA.

In addition to the FAA regulation, drone operators must also contend with whether they are flying afoul of state and local trespassing laws.

Mr. Jones reviewed the so-called “Drone Slayer” case where a Kentucky man shot down a drone that was flying over his property in 2015. The drone pilot sued the property owner in federal court, arguing the case was relevant to federal law because the drone was flying in the air, which is regulated by the FAA. 

“(The pilot) wanted damages,” Mr. Jones said, “but he also wanted a ruling that this was a federal airspace question. So this has been the case that everybody’s been watching for years.”

 A federal judge granted the property owner’s request to dismiss the suit, ruling that federal court is not the proper venue for this claim. Mr. Jones said the judge essentially ruled that “it’s a backyard property case; it’s not a federal question."

Mr. Crawley discussed the case of Barry Billcliff, who had flown a drone to take pictures at his August wedding reception at Searles Castle in Windham, New Hampshire.

The drone hit two women on the dance floor who filed a lawsuit against Mr. Billcliff, claiming they had suffered permanent physical and emotional injury, including one woman who said she had suffered a concussion.

“If you know any good, aggressive plaintiff attorneys,” Mr. Crawley said, tongue in cheek, “they’ll tell you that’s not a concussion, that’s a traumatic brain injury.”

Mr. Billcliff maintains he was not at the controls of the drone at the time of the incident.

The women also filed a negligence lawsuit against Searles Castle Event Management Inc., and the facility said they told Mr. Billcliff that drones were not permitted on the property.

“I think where they made the mistake is that they told people,” Ms. Kroll said.

 “It should’ve been very clearly stated in the contract that the policy of Searles Castle was no drones because of the attendant liability. And this was a recreational drone, so even more risk.”

In another case, the owner of an aerial photography business was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine after a drone he was operating crashed into people during a 2015 parade in Seattle, knocking a woman unconscious, according to Mr. Crawley.