Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. does not have to pay $1.4 million for allegedly defaming a former pilot by reporting him to federal authorities as a possible security threat, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.
William Hoeper, a pilot for the Appleton, Wis.-based regional airline from 1998 to 2004, sued the company for reporting him to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration in December 2004 as “unstable” and possibly armed as he was returning to his home in Denver from Virginia, where he had been in flight simulation training for certification on a new type of aircraft.
According to court documents, Mr. Hoeper previously failed three certification tests, and was aware that he faced possible termination from the company if he failed his fourth attempt. During the fourth test, Mr. Hoeper angrily accused his instructor of purposefully skewing the test to ensure he could not pass certification.
Following the dispute, the airline booked Mr. Hoeper on a return flight to Denver, but decided internally to notify TSA agents in Virginia that they were concerned about his mental stability and — because they could not account for the firearm he had been licensed to carry as a federal flight deck operator — that he may be armed.
TSA pulled him off of his flight, searched and questioned him about the firearm, but he was ultimately cleared to fly back to Denver on a later flight.
He was fired the day after the dispute.
Mr. Hoeper sued the airline in Colorado state court in 2006, alleging that the supervisors who reported him to the TSA recklessly overstated the circumstances of the testing dispute.
A trial court jury awarded Mr. Hoeper $1.4 million in compensatory damages, a ruling that the state's Court of Appeals upheld, as did the Colorado Supreme Court.
However, in a 6-3 ruling handed down Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while the supervisors could have been more nuanced in their description of the events leading up to their report, the Colorado courts improperly stripped Air Wisconsin of its immunity protections under the U.S. Air Transportation Safety Act.
In passing that law, “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,” Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote in the court's majority opinion.
“To hold Air Wisconsin liable for minor misstatements or loose wording would undermine that purpose and disregard the statutory text,” she concluded.