Airline Safety v. Defamation: Supreme Court Set To Hear Pilot’s Slander Case

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SCOTUS to review a defamation-related TSA case.

Airline Safety vs. Defamation. That’s the basic question the United States Supreme Court will soon ponder as they review the case of a pilot who sued his airline for telling the TSA he may be a threat.

The US Supreme Court is adding to its case load and will review a $1.24 million defamation judgment against a Wisconsin-based airline — Air Wisconsin — that reported one of its pilots as mentally unstable, which led to his arrest.

The Supreme Court granted the airline’s petition to present an appeal in their ongoing lawsuit with veteran pilot, William Hoeper.   The Court stated it would limit review to whether “ATSA immunity may be denied without a determination that the air carrier’s disclosure was materially false.”

The Backstory

Hoeper’s problems started when Air Wisconsin decided to update their fleet. Unfortunately for Hoeper, he failed three tests on the new plane.  After his fourth, unsuccessful test, Hoeper was scheduled on a flight home, from Virginia to Colorado.  His manager, Patrick Doyle, testified that Hoeper became angry and had a scuffle with some employees while waiting for his flight after the failed fourth test.

Apparently, Doyle thought Hoeper would be an unruly passenger, because before Hoeper’s flight for Colorado took off, Doyle contacted Air Wisconsin and identified Hoeper as a potential threat to the Transportation Security Administration. The airline rep identified Hoeper as “a disgruntled employee” with potential “mental stability” issues. Doyle also revealed the “whereabouts of Hoeper’s firearm.” As a result, traffic controllers ordered the plane to return to its gate.

(Hold up. Firearm, you ask!? As a federal flight deck officer, deputized by the Transportation Safety Administration while working for Air Wisconsin Airlines, William Hoeper carried a firearm.)

After the scuttle, the TSA removed Mr. Hoeper from the plane, searched and questioned him, but never charged him.

“You Call The TSA on Me, I File A Defamation Lawsuit Against You!”

Unimpressed with the way the airline handled the situation, Hoeper filed a defamation lawsuit against the airline in his home state of Colorado. A jury sided with the pilot. They decided Mr. Doyle’s statements amounted to defamation because Doyle made statements to the TSA, “knowing that they were false, or so recklessly as to amount to a willful disregard for the truth.”

Air Wisconsin argued the merits of the case. The airline evoked provisions in the Aviation Transportation Security Act, which allow folks to report potential security threats without fear of retribution.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and upheld the original verdict.  The Court affirmed that Air Wisconsin did not deserve immunity under the Air Transportation Safety Act.

“Doyle could not form an opinion as to whether Hoeper was mentally unstable at the time that Doyle contacted TSA,” explained Justice Nancy Rice in her opinion.  “In fact, Doyle admitted at trial that, based on the information he had when he contacted TSA, he could not determine if Hoeper was mentally unstable. He, therefore, made this statement with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity,” she concluded.

The fate of this defamation case now lies in the hands of the Justices of the US Supreme Court.

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