The US Supreme Court on Monday reversed a $1.2 million jury award to a fired airline pilot who claimed his former boss made recklessly false statements about him to federal security officials.
The decision stems from a 2004 incident in which the pilot was escorted off a commercial flight by armed officers and detained by Transportation Safety Administration officials after his boss at Air Wisconsin told the TSA that the employee was mentally unstable, that he might be armed, and that he had just lost his job.
The pilot-employee, William Hoeper, was upset because he had just failed a flight test and knew he was likely to lose his job with the airline, but he maintained he was no threat to anyone.
He later charged in a lawsuit that his boss and other supervisors rigged the test to ensure his failure and then made deliberately false statements to the TSA as part of a personal vendetta against him.
A Colorado jury agreed with Mr. Hoeper and ordered Air Wisconsin to pay both compensatory and punitive damages to the former pilot.
Air Wisconsin appealed, arguing that the federal Aviation and Transportation Security Act provides airlines with immunity from civil liability for reporting suspicious behavior.
The company said it was just helping to make TSA aware of a potential threat to aircraft safety.
In agreeing with Air Wisconsin, the high court said that the boss’s report to the TSA was more true than false for purposes of the immunity law.
The court said a reasonable TSA officer would have wanted to investigate whether Hoeper was armed and upset, regardless of the precise words used in the initial report to TSA.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the purpose of the federal law was to protect airline officials from potential liability and encourage reports of any type of suspicious behavior.
“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,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.
Six of the court’s nine justices applied the ruling to the underlying facts of the case and decide that the boss’s statements were not materially false. Their decision reverses Hoeper’s jury verdict.
In a dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Elena Kagan said that the court went too far in reversing the jury verdict and ruling for Air Wisconsin.
Having identified the proper standard for which statements qualify for immunity and which don’t, the justices should have returned the case to the Colorado courts – and eventually a jury – to decide whether the boss’s report to the TSA was substantially true or materially false, the dissenting justices said.
They said the boss’s claim to TSA that Hoeper was mentally unstable was false and that the false statement was important to TSA officials in calculating their response.
“Falsely reporting to the TSA that a young Irishman is an IRA terrorist is much more likely to produce a prompt and erroneous response than reporting that a 70-year-old English grandmother is,” Justice Scalia wrote in the dissent.
“It is simply implausible that, taking the facts of this case in the light most favorable to Hoeper, a reasonable jury would have to find that the report of mental instability would have no effect upon the course of action determined by the TSA,” Scalia said.
The majority justices disagreed. The boss’s statements to the TSA “accurately conveyed ‘the gist’ of the situation,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “It is irrelevant whether trained lawyers or judges might with the luxury of time have chosen more precise words.”
She added: “All of us from time to time use words that, on reflection, we might modify. If such slips of the tongue could give rise to major financial liability, no airline would contact the TSA (or permit its employees to do so) without running by its lawyers the text of its proposed disclosure.”
Sotomayor said that was “exactly the kind of hesitation that Congress aimed to avoid.”
The case is Air Wisconsin v. William Hoeper (12-315).