Airlines Backed at High Court on Security Threat Reports

The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the legal immunity of airlines when they report potential security threats, throwing out a jury verdict won by an Air Wisconsin pilot upset about losing his job.

The justices today unanimously said airlines can’t be sued when they report security threats to the Transportation Security Administration as long as the information the carriers provide is “materially true.” The ruling interpreted a federal law enacted two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Congress wanted to ensure that air carriers and their employees would not hesitate to provide the TSA with the information it needed,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court. The decision overturned a lower court ruling that airlines said would have left them legally vulnerable.

The justices threw out a $1.4 million award won by the pilot, William L. Hoeper. He sued the airline for telling federal officials as he was preparing to board a flight that he was “unstable” and possibly armed.

Three of the nine justices -- Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan -- dissented from that part of the ruling. They said the high court should have let the lower courts decide whether the airline’s report met the “materially true” standard.

Closely held Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. flies for US Airways Group Inc., which joined with AMR Corp. in December to create American Airlines Group Inc.

President Barack Obama’s administration backed the industry in the case.

Reporting Threats

The 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act requires airlines to report security threats to the TSA. It also immunizes carriers from lawsuits, except for reports made with “actual knowledge” that they are false or “reckless disregard” for the truth.

The incident occurred after Hoeper, a 20-year commercial pilot, failed on his fourth and final try to pass a certification test. The airline was requiring Hoeper to prove his proficiency because it was discontinuing the type of airplane he had been piloting.

During the fourth test, Hoeper became angry with the test administrators, allegedly screaming at them and accusing them of deliberately undermining his chances.

He left the facility, and an Air Wisconsin manager, Patrick Doyle, booked the pilot on a flight to his Denver home. Before the flight left, Doyle called TSA to report Hoeper as a potential security threat.

Gun Whereabouts

Among other things, Doyle said he was concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability and about the whereabouts of the firearm he had been issued in his capacity as a federal flight deck officer.

Hoeper was removed from the plane, arrested and later released. A Colorado state-court jury awarded Hoeper damages after concluding the airline had defamed him.

The Colorado Supreme Court said Air Wisconsin wasn’t entitled to immunity because Doyle’s statements were made with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity.

In rejecting that conclusion, Sotomayor said Doyle “accurately conveyed ‘the gist’ of the situation.”

She added, “Baggage handlers, flight attendants, gate agents and other airline employees who report suspicious behavior to the TSA should not face financial ruin if, in the heat of a potential threat, they fail to choose their words with exacting care.”

The case is Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper, 12-315.

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