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Pilot loses appeal over airport safety allegations

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OREGON--In late October, the Supreme Court in Salem unanimously dismissed the defamation and false light invasion of privacy claims of…

OREGON–In late October, the Supreme Court in Salem unanimously dismissed the defamation and false light invasion of privacy claims of a pilot who filed suit over statements that appeared in a handbill printed by Aurora and Charbonneau residents as part of their campaign against expansion efforts at nearby Aurora State Airport.

The court determined that the statements in the handbill could not reasonably be understood as defamatory, did not implicate the pilot, and were protected expressions of opinion.

The state Supreme Court affirmed a trial court judgment, which had been reversed by an appellate court, in dismissing the pilot’s claim.

The court also noted that it had not previously recognized the false light invasion of privacy tort, but then refrained from deciding whether to do so because it concluded the statements did not, in fact, place the pilot in a false light. However, the court also stated in a footnote that the Oregon Court of Appeals has recognized false light claims for more than a decade.

The pilot had been testing a new airplane engine in March 1994 near the Aurora State Airport when an explosion in the tail of his plane forced him into a crash landing. The (Portland) Oregonian reported that the pilot expressed concern about crashing into houses located near the airport.

A neighborhood organization called People Against Aurora Airport Expansion distributed a handout shortly after the crash landing as part of its effort to halt the airport’s expansion plans.

The organization’s notice contained a copy of crash-site photographs from The Oregonian article and statements, including quotes from the newspaper article, about the “corkscrew climb” maneuver the pilot was performing the day of his crash landing.

The pilot claimed the statements that aerial acrobatic maneuvers are “frowned upon” by the Federal Aviation Administration “under certain conditions” and that “many pilots” routinely ignore recommended takeoff and landing patterns were false and defamatory and placed him in a false light by implying that his corkscrew climb was prohibited and that he ignored recommended flight procedures.

The state Supreme Court ruled that the organization’s statement about the FAA did not, as the pilot had asserted, create a reasonable inference that the agency prohibits corkscrew climbs, or that he was violating FAA rules when the explosion occurred.

The court also concluded that the organization’s objection in the handbill to acrobatic maneuvers over residential neighborhoods was not an allegation of fact, but instead was a constitutionally protected expression of opinion.

In addition, the court found the statement that “many pilots” ignore recommended takeoff and landing patterns did not implicate the pilot in any way because nothing in the notice supported the implication that this pilot was among the “many pilots” who ignore recommended patterns.

Because the state Supreme Court concluded that nothing in the handbill created a reasonable inference that the pilot had violated FAA regulations or endangered neighborhood residents, it upheld the trial court’s dismissal of both his defamation and false light claims without directly addressing whether it recognizes the false light invasion of privacy tort. (Reesman v. Highfill; Media Counsel: Keith J. Bauer, Salem)