27 January 2014

Law in Plain English: Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogAir Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

Argument: Dec 9 2013 (Aud.)

Background: William Hoeper was a pilot for Air Wisconsin who was authorized to carry a firearm as a TSA federal flight deck officer. When Air Wisconsin discontinued the type of aircraft that Hoeper piloted, the airline required him to undertake training and pass a test certifying his proficiency in piloting another type of aircraft. Over the course of four failed tests, Hoeper lost his temper, confronted a test administrator, raised his voice, and used profanity. Patrick Doyle, a manager at Air Wisconsin involved in Hoeper's testing, called TSA to report Hoeper as a disgruntled employee (an FFDO who may be armed)" and that he was "concerned about the whereabouts of [Hoeper's] firearm, and [Hoeper's] mental stability at that time." TSA officials arrested Hoeper and searched him. Hoeper then sied Air Wisconsin for defamation. Air Wisconsin assertedthat it was entitled to immunity as a matter of law under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), 49 U.S.C. § 44941 (2006), but the jury found by clear and convincing evidence that the two statements were defamatory and that Air Wisconsin made one or more of the statements "knowing that they were false, or so recklessly as to amount to a willful disregard for the truth." Air Wisconsin appealed and both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Colorado affirmed.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether immunity under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act may be denied without a determination that the air carrier's disclosure was materially false.

Holding: In a 9-0 decision (with a partial concurrence/dissent), the Supreme Court ruled that ATSA immunity may not be denied without a determination that a disclosure was materially false. The ATSA immunity exception is patterned after the actual malice standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, which requires material falsity. As a result, the airline is entitled to immunity as a matter of law.
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