U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Pilot’s Defamation Award on Security Grounds

 - January 28, 2014, 1:32 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has reversed a lower court decision to award a former Air Wisconsin pilot $1.2 million for defamation of character. (Photo: U.S. Supreme Court)

The U.S. Supreme Court last Monday overturned a lower court decision to award $1.2 million to former Air Wisconsin pilot William Hoeper for defamation, ruling that the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) ensures that airlines enjoy immunity from liability in reporting security concerns about an individual to the Transportation Security Administration as long as they do not knowingly disclose false, inaccurate or misleading information.    

The case stems from a 2004 incident during which Hoeper became agitated with a flight instructor, Mark Schuerman, for what Hoeper characterized as an effort to “railroad” him into performing poorly on a flight simulator. At the time a Bombardier CRJ pilot flying out of Denver, Hoeper needed to gain certification on the BAe 146 because Air Wisconsin stopped flying the CRJ from his home base. After Hoeper failed in his first three attempts to earn his BAe 146 ticket, Air Wisconsin agreed to give him a fourth and final chance. When he again failed to perform up to standards, he raised his voice, tossed his headset and used profanity before accusing the instructor of “railroading the situation.”

When Hoeper announced he wanted to call the Air Line Pilots Association legal department, Schuerman ended the session so Hoeper could do so, according to court documents.  Schuerman then reported Hoeper’s behavior to Patrick Doyle, the Wisconsin-based manager of the BAe 146 fleet. Doyle booked Hoeper from the training center in Virginia on a United Airlines flight back to Denver, then met with Air Wisconsin managers at the airline’s headquarters in Appleton, Wis., the next day, at which time they decided to fire Hoeper.

Concerned that Hoeper had access to a gun as a federal flight deck officer (FFDO), Air Wisconsin vice president of flight operations Kevin LaWare decided that someone should call the TSA. Doyle volunteered and voiced to the TSA the airline’s concern “about [Hoeper’s] mental stability and the whereabouts of his firearm.” He also characterized Hoeper as “an unstable pilot in [the] FFDO program” who the airline had just fired.

Hoeper sued the airline in Colorado state court on several claims including defamation and won. The Colorado Court of Appeals then affirmed the judgment, determining that Air Wisconsin made the statements about Hoeper “with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity.”

The U.S. Supreme Court justices voted six to three to overturn the decision. In delivering the majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the Colorado state courts did not determine that Air Wisconsin’s disclosure was materially false, nor would any falsehood in the disclosure have affected a reasonable security officer’s assessment of the supposed threat.

“In directing the TSA to ‘receive, assess, and distribute intelligence information related to transportation security,’ Congress wanted to ensure that air carriers and their employees would not hesitate to provide the TSA with the information it needed,” Sotomayor wrote. “It would defeat this purpose to deny immunity for substantially true reports, on the theory that the person making the report had not yet gathered enough information to be certain of its truth.”

Sotomayor concluded that Congress incorporated a malice standard into ATSA to give carriers “breathing space” to report potential threats to security officials without fear of civil liability “for a few inaptly chosen words.

“To hold Air Wisconsin liable for minor misstatements or loose wording would undermine that purpose and disregard the statutory text,” she concluded.

In a statement released Monday, the Regional Airline Association applauded the decision. “The Regional Airline Association and our airline members are gratified the U.S. Supreme Court strongly affirmed that airlines and their employees must report security threats without fear of potential legal ramifications,” it said. “The ability for airline professionals to recognize potential threats and report them to the appropriate authorities is fundamental to the culture of safety and security we have developed over the years, and we are relieved to see these protections upheld.”