Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

After Air Wisconsin stopped flying aircraft that Hoeper was certified to fly, Hoeper failed three attempts to gain new certification. Air Wisconsin gave him one final chance. He performed poorly during required training and responded angrily, tossing his headset, using profanity, and making accusations against the instructor. Airline officials discussed the outburst, Hoeper’s impending termination; the history of assaults by disgruntled employees; and the chance that Hoeper, a Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO), permitted “to carry a firearm while engaged in providing air transportation,” 49 U.S.C. 44921(f)(1) might be armed. An airline executive notified the TSA that Hoeper “was an FFDO who may be armed,” that the airline was “concerned about his mental stability and the whereabouts of his firearm,” and that an “[u]nstable pilot in [the] FFDO program was terminated today.” The TSA removed Hoeper (returning home from training) from his plane, searched him, and questioned him about the location of his gun. Hoeper sued for defamation. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), 49 U.S.C. 44941(a), provides airlines and employees immunity for reporting suspicious behavior except where such disclosure is “made with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading” or “made with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.” The jury found for Hoeper. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. ATSA immunity, patterned after the Times v. Sullivan “actual malice” standard, may not be denied to materially true statements, even if made recklessly; a falsehood cannot be material absent a substantial likelihood that a reasonable security officer would consider it important in determining a response. Any falsehoods in the statement to the TSA were not material. A reasonable TSA officer, knowing that Hoeper was an FFDO, upset about losing his job, would have wanted to investigate whether he was armed. While Hoeper had not actually been fired at that time, everyone knew that termination was imminent. It would be inconsistent with the ATSA’s text and purpose to expose Air Wisconsin to liability because the manager who placed the call could have chosen a slightly better phrase to articulate the airline’s concern. View "Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper" on Justia Law