The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when an airline reports to TSA about an individual who might pose a potential danger, the airline may not be held liable if its report contained exaggerations and minor falsehoods. (Court allows gov’t employees to LIE while innocent Americans get arrested, WTF?)
Air Wisconsin terminated the employment of a pilot who failed several required tests, and who became extremely agitated and disruptive during the fourth, and last, test. In its report to TSA, the airline described the pilot as “mentally unstable.” The fired pilot sued the airline for describing him as mentally unstable, and a Colorado jury awarded him $1.2 million in damages. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said “a few inaptly chosen words” were not enough to support the verdict. “Baggage handlers, flight attendants, gate agents, and other airline employees who report suspicious behavior to the TSA should not face financial ruin if, in the heat of a potential threat, they fail to choose their words with exacting care,” she wrote.
A federal law — the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 — gives airline employees broad immunity from lawsuits for reports of suspicious activities.
The court threw out a jury’s award of $1.2 million to a pilot who was removed from a plane, questioned and searched after his employer told the Transportation Security Administration that he had just been fired, was mentally unstable and might be carrying a gun.
The pilot, William L. Hoeper, failed a series of tests he needed to pass to qualify to fly a new kind of aircraft. Mr. Hoeper ended the fourth test abruptly, cursing and shouting. His employer, Air Wisconsin Airlines, booked Mr. Hoeper on a flight home to Denver and, after internal deliberations, contacted the transportation agency.
The justices were unanimous in ruling that the Colorado Supreme Court had applied the wrong legal standard in upholding the jury award when it said that true statements may give rise to liability. The United States Supreme Court, drawing on its libel decisions, said only materially false statements should count.
But the justices split, 6 to 3, over whether the gaps between what the airline had told the authorities and what was strictly true was broad enough to allow the suit. Mr. Hoeper would not be fired until the next day; was authorized to carry a gun as a flight deck officer but was unarmed that day; and was upset but perhaps not “mentally unstable.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, said “a few inaptly chosen words” were not enough to support the verdict.
“Baggage handlers, flight attendants, gate agents, and other airline employees who report suspicious behavior to the T.S.A. should not face financial ruin if, in the heat of a potential threat, they fail to choose their words with exacting care,” she wrote. ( If an airline attendant or baggage clerk doesn’t like you, they can lie and call you a terrorist. What’s even worse they’re immune from prosecution! Lying about false flag terrorism is ok, ruining people’s lives is ok?)
In dissent on this point, Justice Antonin Scalia said the court had decided too much and should have instead sent the case back to the lower courts to apply the correct legal standard. He said it was hardly clear that the airline’s characterization of the pilot’s conduct was materially accurate. In particular, he said, Mr. Hoeper’s frustration and anger may not have entitled the airline to call him “mentally unstable.” Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan joined the partial dissent.
Justice Sotomayor responded that Mr. Hoeper was not an ordinary traveler, partly because he was authorized to carry a firearm. “Hoeper was not some traveling businessman who yelled at a barista in a fit of pique over a badly brewed cup of coffee,” she wrote.
The case, Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper, No. 12-315, concerned a federal law, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001. It gave airline employees broad immunity from lawsuits for reports of suspicious activities.
The law had an exception, based on the “actual malice” standard in the Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, for statements made with knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. In the portion of her opinion that was unanimous, Justice Sotomayor said the defamation standard must be adapted to fit the 2001 law. Materiality for purposes of libel suits, she said, turns on whether the statement “affects the subject’s reputation in the community.”
In the context of the 2001 law, she went on, “we care whether a falsehood affects the authorities’ perception of and response to a given threat.”