Defamation verdict in Air Wisconsin case vacated by Supreme Court

Michael Rooney | Libel | News | January 27, 2014

The Supreme Court ruled today in Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper that airlines cannot be held liable for reporting safety threats to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) if the report was essentially true, even if some details were false. The Court held that airlines would not be stripped of the statutory immunity from civil suits under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) for reporting such safety threats.

The ATSA provides that airlines reporting suspicious activity to the TSA cannot be held liable for defamation under state law unless their reports are made with actual knowledge that the statement was false or that the statement was made with reckless disregard of its truth. That requirement borrows language from New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 Supreme Court case in which the Court applied a higher standard for proving defamation of a public official than is required to prove defamation of a private individual. Air Wisconsin claimed a report it made to the TSA in this case should be subject to that higher standard under the ATSA.

William Hoeper was a pilot with Air Wisconsin. As he sought certification to fly a new type of aircraft for the airline, Hoeper quit a simulator test in Virginia in what was his final chance to retain his job. Hoeper accused the tester of fixing the exam and left the building agitated.

Several hours later, Hoeper boarded a flight home to Denver. However, the test administrator had earlier contacted Air Wisconsin and explained what happened at the testing site. Air Wisconsin officials were particularly concerned that as a federal flight deck officer, Hoeper was permitted to carry a gun on a plane. The airline contacted TSA and reported that Air Wisconsin was concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability and that he might be carrying a weapon. It also said that Hoeper had been terminated that day. When it received the report, the TSA removed Hoeper from the flight.

As a result, Hoeper sued Air Wisconsin for defamation, alleging the report to TSA was false because he had not actually been fired that day and the airline had no reason to believe he was armed or a threat to fellow passengers. A Colorado jury awarded him a total of $1.4 million in compensatory and punitive damages. At trial, Air Wisconsin unsuccessfully claimed it was immune from liability under the ATSA.

In its opinion today, the Supreme Court reversed that decision saying that the statements made by Air Wisconsin to the TSA were "materially true” and that to strip airlines of immunity under the ATSA for potentially false statements would be to undermine the purpose of the ATSA.