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Defamation Case Decided for Airline in High Court

(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday overturned a $1.4 million verdict for a pilot who claimed Air Wisconsin defamed him by describing him to airport security as recently fired, possibly armed and mentally unstable.

The high court ruled 6-3 that the airline's statements -- while not entirely true -- were not "materially false" under the Air Transportation Safety Act (ATSA).

William Hoeper had joined Air Wisconsin as a pilot in 1998. By late 2004, the airline stopped operating flights from Denver, Hoeper's home base, on the types of planes Hoeper was certified to fly.

He failed his first three certification tests for the new plane, and performed poorly while training for his fourth and final attempt in Virginia. Hoeper says he lashed out at his training instructor, calling it "a bunch of shit" and accusing the instructor of "railroading the situation."

The instructor reported Hoeper's behavior to Air Wisconsin Manager Patrick Doyle, who booked Hoeper on a flight back to Denver.

Doyle discussed the situation with officials at the airline's headquarters, some of whom were concerned that Hoeper might be carrying the firearm he was issued as a flight deck officer.

Although Hoeper wasn't supposed to take his gun with him to training, one airline official said there was "no way ... to confirm" whether "Hoeper had his weapon with him."

They decided that, given Hoeper's anger during training, his imminent firing and other factors, they should notify the Transportation Security Administration about the situation.

TSA officers removed Hoeper from his plane to Denver, searched him and asked where his gun was. Hoeper replied that he'd left it at home in Denver, and a Denver-based agent went there to retrieve it.

The pilot boarded a later return flight to Denver and was fired the next day.

He sued the airline for defamation, and a Colorado jury awarded him just under $1.2 million.

The Colorado Supreme Court upheld that verdict, saying the airline had "overstated" the events at training "to such a degree that they were made with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity."

But the nation's high court took up the case to decide if an airline can be denied immunity under the ATSA without a determination that its disclosures were "materially false." All nine justices ruled that it cannot, though the justices split 6-3 on whether Air Wisconsin's statements fell into that category.

The majority rejected Hoeper's claim that the airline officials should have qualified their statements or chosen slightly better phrasing.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the statements to TSA "accurately conveyed 'the gist' of the situation" - that airline officials were concerned about the mental state of an angry, possibly armed pilot facing imminent firing.

She added that "it is irrelevant whether trained lawyers or judges might with the luxury of time have chosen more precise words."

"By incorporating the actual malice standard into [the ATSA], 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," Sotomayor wrote. "To hold Air Wisconsin liable for minor misstatements or loose wording would undermine that purpose and disregard the statutory text."

Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that the airline cannot be denied immunity unless its statements were found to be materially false. However, he said the majority needs to ask whether a reasonable jury could have found the statements materially false.

"Applying that reasonable-jury standard, I do not see how we can possibly hold as a matter of law that Air Wisconsin's report was not materially false," Scalia wrote.

He said a jury "could find that Hoeper did nothing more than engage in a brief, run-of-the-mill, and arguably justified display of anger that included raising his voice and swearing, but that did not cause anyone, including the person on the receiving end of the outburst, to view him as either irrational or a potential source of violence."

Joining him in partial dissent were Justices Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan.

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