US court shields airlines from libel over exaggerated security alerts

Carriers that report suspicious behaviour not liable even if statement misleading

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 9:48pm


The US Supreme Court has decided to shield airlines from being sued when they alert the government to threatening or suspicious behaviour by their pilots or passengers, even if the reports later turn out to be exaggerated or misleading.

In a six-to-three decision, the US high court tossed out a US$1.2 million defamation verdict awarded to a fired pilot who was pulled from a flight after his employer, Air Wisconsin, warned the Transportation Security Administration that he could be armed and may be "unstable".

The justices said on Monday that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, federal air safety officials need to be warned about possible threats, and airlines cannot be sued for providing such warnings.

"Congress meant to give air carriers the 'breathing space' to report potential threats to security officials without fear of civil liability for a few inaptly chosen words," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the court.

She referred to the suggestion that the pilot, William Hoeper, might have suffered from mental instability and that he might be carrying a gun. Neither was shown to be true. Instead, Hoeper had failed a proficiency test that he needed to pass in order to fly a new kind of plane, and he reportedly "blew up" in frustration at a flight instructor.

In his defamation suit, Hoeper said the alert sent to the TSA wrongly suggested he was mentally deranged. And though he was authorised to carry a weapon aboard flights, he did not have a gun with him when he was in Virginia undergoing testing.

After the alert was sent to the TSA, Hoeper was removed as a passenger from a flight at Dulles International Airport in Washington and questioned. After authorities determined there was no threat, he was allowed to leave on a later flight.

Back home in Colorado, he sued Air Wisconsin for defamation, claiming the incident destroyed his professional reputation. A jury agreed the alert was false and misleading.

The Supreme Court took up the case to decide for the first time how to apply the post 9/11 law. Justices agreed the airlines were shielded from liability as long as their reports to the TSA are "materially true".

In this instance, Sotomayor wrote, the airline cannot be held liable because some judges might think a mention of "mentally unstable" could be seen as reference to mental illness.