About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Airline immune from pilot’s defamation claim, says U.S. Supreme Court

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

The Supreme Court has ruled that immunity granted by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) to airlines and their employees against civil liability for reporting suspicious behavior applies to statements made to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. Thus, the High Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Colorado which had affirmed a finding that ATSA immunity did not apply to a pilot’s defamation claim against an airline for reporting to the TSA that an “[u]nstable” pilot had been fired and that he might be carrying a firearm, which is allowed for any federal flight deck officer (FFDO) (Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp v Hoeper, January 27, 2014, Sotomayor, S).

Actual malice standard. The High Court noted that the actual malice standard in the ATSA was patterned after New York Times Co v Sullivan, which requires material falsity, and Congress presumably meant to incorporate it into the ATSA’s immunity exception and did not mean to deny immunity to true statements made recklessly. After discussing what is considered a materially false statement in the defamation context, the High Court found that the standard worked in the ATSA context as well, so long as the hypothetical reader or listener is a security officer. Thus, for purposes of ATSA immunity, a falsehood cannot be material absent a substantial likelihood that a reasonable security officer would consider it important in determining a response to the supposed threat.

Falsehoods not material. As applied here, the Court concluded as a matter of law that any falsehoods in the airline’s statements to the TSA were not material. A reasonable TSA officer, having been told that the pilot was an FFDO upset about losing his job, would have wanted to investigate whether he was armed. To demand more precise wording would vitiate the purpose of ATSA immunity: to encourage air carriers and their employees, often in fast-moving situations, to immediately provide the TSA information about potential threats. Moreover, the statement that he “was terminated today” was not materially false, though he was not actually fired until the next day, because no reasonable TSA officer would care whether an angry, potentially armed employee had just been fired or merely knew he was about to be fired. Accordingly, ATSA immunity applied.

Dissent. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kagan dissented in part. They agreed that under the ATSA, an airline may not be denied immunity for a report made to the TSA absent a finding that the report was materially false, but would have stopped the analysis there and remanded for the “factbound question” of whether the material falsity standard was met under the facts of this case.