Pilot Defamation Case: It’s Going To SCOTUS

TSA logo to accompany post about pilot defamation
SCOTUS to review a defamation-related TSA case.

The United States Supreme Court will soon ponder a pilot defamation case involving potential threat accusations.

The US Supreme Court will review a $1.24 million defamation judgment against a Wisconsin-based airline — Air Wisconsin — that reported one of its pilots as mentally unstable.

The Supreme Court will hear the air carrier’s appeal in its ongoing lawsuit against pilot William Hoeper.   The Court stated it would limit the review to whether or not the “ATSA immunity may be denied without a determination that the air carrier’s disclosure was materially false.”

Pilot Defamation Backstory

Hoeper’s problems started when Air Wisconsin decided to update its fleet. Unfortunately, he failed three tests on the new plane.  After his fourth, unsuccessful test, Hoeper flew home.  His manager, Patrick Doyle, testified that Hoeper became angry and scuffled with some employees while waiting for his flight.

Apparently, Doyle thought Hoeper would be an unruly passenger, contacted Air Wisconsin, and identified Hoeper as a potential threat to the Transportation Security Administration. The airline rep described 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 the 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 airline’s handling of the situation, Hoeper filed a defamation lawsuit. A jury sided with the pilot. They decided Mr. Doyle’s statements amounted to defamation because Doyle made statements, “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 allows 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 pilot defamation case now lies in the hands of the Justices of the US Supreme Court.

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