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By David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday shielded airlines from being sued when they alert the government to threatening or suspicious behavior by their pilots or passengers, even if the reports later turn out to be exaggerated or misleading.

In a 6-3 decision, the high court tossed out a $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 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 disgruntled pilot, William Hoeper, may 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 airplane, 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 authorized 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 an airplane at Dulles International Airport 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 are 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 just because some lawyers or judges might think a mention of “mentally unstable” could be seen as reference to a serious mental illness.

“If such slips of the tongue could give rise to major financial liability, no airline would contact TSA or permit its employees to do so,” Sotomayor said. “Hoeper was not some traveling businessman who yelled at a barista in a fit of pique over a badly brewed cup of coffee,” she continued. He was a pilot who “plausibly could have been carrying a firearm,” she said.

Her opinion noted the 1987 crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight in California that was attributed to a recently fired ticket agent who brought a gun aboard the plane and shot the flight crew.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in part and said the case should have been sent back to Colorado to reconsider the claim involving the pilot’s mental instability. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan agreed.

Photo: Clarissa Peterson via Flickr

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