Supreme Court justices debated Monday how much leeway to grant airlines in reporting security threats that are eventually proven false, USA Today reports.
The case involves Air Wisconsin Airlines, which argued that it deserves the same immunity from lawsuits as it granted the Transportation Security Administration, the article says. The airline had lost a $1.4 million defamation case after reporting that a pilot, William Hoeper, was “mentally unstable” and could be armed as a passenger on a flight after he failed a simulator test.
In December 2004, Hoeper boarded a plane as a passenger at Washington Dulles Airport, and airline officials worried he might be a security threat because he “blew up” at instructors and cursed at them. Hoeper was trained to carry a firearm in the cockpit, but airline officials did not know if he had a gun with him. His flight was surrounded on the ground by emergency vehicles and a snow plow before Hoeper, a 20-year commercial pilot, was removed by law enforcement officials and detained.
The language of the report, including what Hoeper’s lawyer calls “trigger words,” is under question. Justice Stephen Breyer remarked that requiring airlines to monitor their words more carefully, getting lawyers involved, when a real threat is imminent and time is of the essence. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked why an airline worker used the words “mentally unstable” instead of “angry,” the former of which insinuates more than the facts of the situation.
According to Justice Antonin Scalia, the case could lead to two legal tests: one for whether a statement is false and another for whether the false statement prompted the airlines to treat a passenger differently.
The case could also set standards for when and how security threats are reported.
The lawyer representing Air Wisconsin says pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers should be forgiven for using imprecise language in reporting possible security threats. Statements about possible threats are made urgently, without the consult of a lawyer.
A decision in the case is expected by June.