Airline Brings Pilot's Libel Case to High Court
WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to take up a case where Air Wisconsin got a pilot arrested after describing him as a fired employee who may be armed and mentally unstable.
William Hoeper carried a firearm as a federal flight deck officer deputized by the Transportation Safety Administration while working for Air Wisconsin Airlines.
Hoeper's career took a downturn, however, when Air Wisconsin stopped using the type of plane he was used to flying. He failed three tests on the new plane.
Hoeper flew from his home in Colorado to Virginia for his fourth and final attempt at the test.
Patrick Doyle, Hoeper's manager, testified that Hoeper became angry during the fourth test and ended it abruptly, believing that administrators were sabotaging his efforts.
After booking Hoeper on a flight home, Doyle called the TSA and reported Hoeper as a possible threat.
In his personal notes, Doyle wrote that he told the TSA that Hoeper was "a disgruntled employee" and that he was concerned about Hoeper's "mental stability" and the "whereabouts of [Hoeper's] firearm."
Hoeper spent two incident-free hours at the airport waiting for his flight before Doyle called TSA.
Officers then arrested Hoeper and searched him. After the pilot sued Air Wisconsin for defamation,
Doyle testified that he did not mention Hoeper's mental stability when he spoke to the TSA.
A jury nevertheless found that Doyle had made the statement and also told TSA that Hoeper had just been fired. This amounted to defamation because Doyle made the statements to the TSA, "knowing that they were false, or so recklessly as to amount to a willful disregard for the truth."
The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed in March 2012 that Air Wisconsin owed Hoeper $1.4 million in damages.
It found that the airline did not deserve immunity under the Air Transportation Safety Act (ATSA).
"Doyle could not form an opinion as to whether Hoeper was mentally unstable at the time that Doyle contacted TSA," according to the majority opinion authored by Justice Nancy Rice. "In fact, Doyle admitted at trial that, based on the information he had when he contacted TSA, he could not determine if Hoeper was mentally unstable. He therefore made this statement with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity."
"In addition, the evidence establishes that Doyle's statement that Hoeper had been terminated that day was false and that Doyle knew it to be false. Although Hoeper likely would be terminated, no termination had yet occurred," she added.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted the airline's petition for certiorari on Monday, saying it would limit review to whether "ATSA immunity may be denied without a determination that the air carrier's disclosure was materially false.