Court tosses defamationsuit against ARG/US

 - October 12, 2006, 6:06 AM

A lawsuit accusing safety audit specialist Aviation Research Group/ U.S. (ARG/US) of defamation was settled last month when a U.S. District Court judge granted a motion by ARG/US for a summary judgment of dismissal.

Aviation Charter of Eden Prairie, Minn., part of Executive Aviation, brought the suit. The Flying Cloud Airport-based charter company had operated the Beech King Air A100 in which Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and seven others died.

The airplane crashed on Oct. 25, 2002, while on approach to Eveleth-Virginia Airport in Eveleth, Minn. The claim against ARG/US was not directly related to the crash; it stemmed from statements made by ARG/US president Joe Moeggenberg and published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Moeggenberg told the Tribune that before the crash his Cincinnati-based safety audit company had evaluated Aviation Charter and given it ARG/US’s lowest safety rating, “DNQ” (does not qualify). The newspaper subsequently published the story under the headline, “Wellstone charter firm got poor safety evaluation.”

In response to the newspaper story, Aviation Charter contended that the ARG/US rating system was flawed, the methodology was arbitrary and that “both ARG/US’s rating of Aviation Charter and the subsequent statements made to the Star Tribune are defamatory.”

Aviation Charter’s complaint specifically alleged seven defamatory statements were printed in the Tribune, among them that:

• For more than a year before the October airplane crash ARG/US had warned “its customers about safety concerns it had with Aviation Charter, Inc.”

• Aviation Charter qualified for a DNQ rating, the “lowest of the company’s four safety ratings.”

• Aviation Charter’s safety record was in the lowest 8 percent of the 875 air charter firms rated by ARG/US.

• ARG/US had published a 77-page report on Aviation Charter that “shows a history of problems.”

• Aviation Charter had the poorest safety record of the nine Minnesota charter
operators rated by ARG/US.

• Aviation Charter drew 15 enforcement actions since 1991.

• Aviation Charter’s record of enforcement actions was excessive compared with other companies’.

In the course of the suit, said ARG/US attorney Eric Heiberg, a partner with Minneapolis business litigation specialist Coleman, Hull and van Vliet, “It became clear that Aviation Charter was not so angry about the statements in the papers, but that they reflected what it considered an unfair audit.” Judge Paul Magnuson disagreed.

In responding to ARG/US’s motion for summary judgment, Magnuson concluded that Aviation Charter had offered no evidence to support the argument that ARG/US “acted with actual malice or reckless disregard in formulating its safety ratings.

“Aviation Charter’s defamation claim fails as a matter of law,” said Magnuson, and added that because ARG/US was found not to have acted with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth, “claims relating to the Star Tribune article likewise fail.”

Magnuson further found that Moeggenberg’s statements did not constitute commercial advertising or promotion. As a result, Air Charter’s claims on this point also failed to violate Minnesota Deceptive Trade Practices.

Heiberg said the suit against ARG/US was not related to claims against Aviation Charter by the family members of Wellstone and of the other five passengers who were killed in the crash. In that matter, a lawsuit was averted when Aviation Charter’s insurer reached a $25 million agreement with the families in 2003.