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Supreme Court rules for airline in defamation case

The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously to overturn a defamation judgment in Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper [docket], in which a pilot sued the airline for reporting him as a security threat and calling him "mentally unstable." At issue in this case was the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) [Cornell LII backgrounder]. To encourage such reports, the ATSA provides a broad grant of immunity from suit, shielding airlines and their employees from all liability, including liability for state-law defamation. The only exception to this immunity is for reports made "with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate, or misleading" or "with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure." The court concluded that Air Wisconsin was entitled to immunity by law, as such immunity "may not be denied to materially true statements." The court reversed and remanded the case, urging the public policy need "to encourage air carriers and their employees, often in fast-moving situations and with little time to fine-tune their diction, to provide the TSA immediately with information about potential threats."

The Colorado Supreme Court [official website] previously granted the pilot, William Hoeper, $1.4 million for the 2004 incident, when an Air Wisconsin manager reported Hoeper to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) [official website] as a possible threat after Heoper became angry during a certification test. The Supreme Court of Colorado held [opinion] that Air Wisconsin was not entitled to immunity and that the statements were false. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in June and oral arguments [JURIST reports] were heard in December. At trial, counsel for Hoeper stated that the use of terms such as "mentally unstable" were unjustified and false. Meanwhile, counsel for Air Wisconsin argued that airline workers should be given greater allowance in their word choice while making an urgent phone call regarding a suspected threat.

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