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Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp. v. Hoeper

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: January 27, 2014
Case #: 12-315
Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined, and in which Scalia, Thomas, and Kagan, JJ., joined as to Parts I, II, and III-A. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Thomas and Kagan, JJ., joined.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-315_j5fl.pdf

Qualified Immunity: Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), immunity is not granted when airlines and their employees provide materially false disclosures about suspicious behavior.

Respondent unsuccessfully attempted to become flight certified by Petitioner.  Respondent abruptly ended his final test because he believed that the test administrators were purposely sabotaging his efforts to pass.   Petitioner reserved a flight home for Respondent.  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issues fire arms to federal flight deck officer(s) (FFDO), which Respondent was, although these pilots are not allowed to carry firearms while traveling as passengers.  After a meeting discussing Respondents outburst and impending termination, Petitioner proceeded to call and report to the TSA that Respondent was disgruntled and possibly armed.  Subsequently, TSA arrested Respondent.

Respondent sued Petitioner alleging defamation.  Petitioner moved for a summary judgment based the fact that Petitioner was immune from civil liability under the ATSA.  Petitioner also argued that Respondent could not prove “actual malice” because Petitioner's statements were “substantially true” and therefore protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  The trial court denied the motion to dismiss.  The jury found that Petitioner's statements to the TSA were false and that it made at least one statement with reckless disregard for the truth.  After the jury awarded damages, a Colorado appellate court affirmed.  The Colorado Supreme Court held that the trial court’s submission of the matter to the jury was improper; however, the error was harmless in this case because Petitioner was not entitled to claim immunity under ATSA.  The Colorado Supreme Court further held that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding that the statements were false.  

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed, remanded and held that under the ATSA, immunity is not granted when airlines and their employees provide materially false disclosures about suspicious behavior. The purpose of the ATSA is to help ensure that information is sent without "hesitation" and therefore an air carrier who voluntarily reports suspicious transactions or behavior shall not be “civilly liable.” The immunity does not apply to disclosures made with “actual knowledge” that the disclosure is false, inaccurate, or misleading. Likewise, the immunity does not extend to an air carrier that makes a disclosure with “reckless disregard” as to a statement's truth or falsity.