Workplace defamation suits can result in high damages awards. A former pilot and federal flight deck officer (FFDO), William Hoeper, successfully sued his former employer, Air Wisconsin, for defamation after one of its managers, Patrick Doyle, reported Hoeper to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a potential threat to airline security. Last month, the Supreme Court of Colorado, applying Virginia law, upheld a $1.4 million jury verdict against Air Wisconsin.
Hoeper had been taking a test to fly a new plane. According to test administrators, Hoeper ended the test abruptly, raised his voice at the administrator, and used profanity. Afterwards, while Hoeper was waiting for his flight home, Doyle called TSA to report that Hoeper may be carrying his government-issued FFDO firearm and that he was concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability because Hoeper had been terminated that day.
When a plaintiff alleges defamation involving a “matter of public concern,” the defendant is entitled to First Amendment free speech protection unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the statement was false and made with actual malice. Actual malice is present if the statement was made by the defendant with (1) knowledge of the statement’s falsity or (2) reckless disregard as to the statement’s falsity. However, even before the plaintiff presents his case, an airline defendant may be able to avoid liability altogether under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which provides immunity from civil suits to “an air carrier who voluntarily discloses any suspicious transaction relevant to certain aircraft security statutes.” If the disclosures are made with actual knowledge or reckless disregard as to the statement’s falsity, however, ATSA immunity is lost and the plaintiff can proceed to demonstrating that a statement was defamatory.
Holding that Air Wisconsin was liable for defamation, the Colorado Supreme Court first found that the ATSA immunity did not apply to Air Wisconsin because Doyle recklessly disregarded the truth when making his statement about Hoeper to TSA. Specifically, Doyle knew Hoeper had not been terminated that day and he lacked information to form an opinion on Hoeper’s mental stability or to imply that Hoeper was armed. The court further pointed out that Doyle could not have been very concerned about Hoeper’s mental state because he sent Hoeper to the airport that same day with another Air Wisconsin employee and did not initially write down any of his concerns in his notes. While his statements to the TSA suggested that Hoeper was so unstable that he might pose a threat to security, his actions demonstrated that he did not truly believe that to be the case.
Since Air Wisconsin was not immune to Hoeper’s suit, the court went on to apply Virginia state law to find that Doyle made a false statement to TSA with actual malice. Air Wisconsin was therefore liable for damages.