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Pilot Defamed as Threat Can Collect $1.4 Million

(CN) - Air Wisconsin owes $1.4 million to a pilot it had arrested with claims that he was a fired employee who may be armed and mentally unstable, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled.

William Hoeper says the Transportation Safety Administration let him carry a weapon on his flights after certifying him as a federal flight deck officer.

But Hoeper's career took a downturn when his employer, 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."

Doyle testified at trial that he did not mention Hoeper's mental stability when he spoke to the TSA, but the jury found that he had made the statement and also told TSA that Hoeper had just been fired.

But Hoeper had spent two incident-free hours at the airport waiting for his flight before Doyle called TSA.

Hoeper sued the airline over his subsequent arrest and search, and a jury ruled that the company had defamed Hoeper and was liable for the statements to the TSA, "knowing that they were false, or so recklessly as to amount to a willful disregard for the truth."

Air Wisconsin appealed, but the court of appeals also ruled in Hoeper's favor. The airline then brought the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.

The state's highest court ruled on March 19 that Air Wisconsin's statements are not entitled to immunity under the Air Transportation Safety Act.

"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.

Two members of the court joined Justice Allison Eid in a partially dissenting opinion that said Air Wisconsin deserved immunity because Doyle's statements were "substantially true" The TSA, not Air Wisconsin, had asserted that Hoeper "was terminated today," the dissent states.

"Hoeper himself admitted that he expected to be terminated, because, having left the facility without passing the test, he could do nothing to prolong his employment. His employment had, in effect, been terminated," Eid wrote. "Air Wisconsin's statement was therefore substantially true."

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