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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Missed Opportunity: Cert. Grant in Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper

In June the Roberts Court granted certiorari in its first libel case, Air Wisconsin Airlines
Corp. v. Hoeper
, __P.3d__, 2012 WL 907764 (Colo. 2012), cert. granted __U.S__
(June 17, 2013). For a media lawyer, this development should be exciting. Unfortunately the Supreme Court granted certiorari limited to a narrow question of relatively little relevance to the media. Here's the story. 

In Hoeper an employee of Air Wisconsin Airlines informed the Transportation Safety Administration that an Air Wisconsin pilot was a possible threat and might be unstable. Earlier in the day, the pilot had failed a flight simulation test and had lost his temper, shouting and cursing at Air Wisconsin employees conducting the test. Air Wisconsin previously had stated it would fire the pilot if he failed the test. After the pilot’s outburst, employees of Air Wisconsin discussed his behavior and the fact that a TSA program allowed him to carry a weapon on an aircraft. An employee then reported the pilot to TSA as mentally unstable, potentially armed, and disgruntled over having been fired that day. The pilot sued for defamation.

Air Wisconsin moved for summary judgment based on the ATSA immunity provisions, but the trial judge denied the motion on the grounds that “the jury was entitled to resolve disputed issues of fact that controlled the determination of immunity.” After rejecting the airline’s claim of immunity, the jury found its statements to TSA were defamatory and made with actual malice. The trial judge entered the jury’s verdict of $1.4 million, and the airline appealed. A Colorado court of appeals affirmed, holding that the jury’s finding of actual malice was supported by clear and convincing evidence, and that statements at issue were neither opinion nor substantially true.

The Supreme Court of Colorado affirmed. Although the trial court erred in “submitting the immunity question to the jury” rather than determining the question as a matter of law before trial, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the error was harmless because Air Wisconsin’s statements were not entitled to immunity. Under the ATSA, an air carrier is not entitled to immunity for reporting a security threat to TSA if the report is made with knowledge or reckless disregard of its falsity. The Colorado Supreme Court determined “based on the record evidence” that Air Wisconsin’s defamatory statements were made with reckless disregard as to their falsity. Indeed, the court found that clear and convincing evidence supported the jury’s finding of actual malice. The court also determined that the statement that the pilot was “mentally unstable” and thus a threat to airline security was not a protected opinion but instead implied a false assertion of fact. The court found “substantial and sufficient” evidence to support the jury’s determination that the statements were false.

Three justices, dissenting in part, contended that the court’s opinion “threatens to undermine the federal system for reporting flight risks.” The dissent contended that the air carrier’s statements about the pilot were substantially true, because the pilot had indeed had an angry outburst during a training session and was facing termination at the time Air Wisconsin employees reported him to TSA. According to the dissent, Air Wisconsin thus was entitled to immunity as a matter of law.

Obviously the scope of air carrier immunity under the ATSA is an important question, and a narrow interpretation of that immunity might deter air carriers from reporting employees who pose threats to air safety to the TSA. From a media lawyer's perspective, the case raises another important question, and one with which lower courts have struggled: Must courts engage in independent appellate review of jury determinations of falsity in defamation cases involving matters of public concern?  The Supreme Court long ago held that courts must engage in independent appellate review of the jury's actual malice determinations, and actual malice must be established with "convincing clarity." See Bose; Sullivan. "Actual malice," of course, is a term of art meaning knowledge or reckless disregard of falsity. Because the actual malice determination is so closely linked with the falsity issue, some but obviously not all lower courts have assumed that they must independently review jury determinations for "clear and convincing evidence" of falsity. Indeed, the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief in support of Air Wisconsin's petition for certiorari, urging the Court to take the case to resolve the uncertainty among lower courts regarding whether independent appellate review of falsity determinations is required.

Alas, the Supreme Court granted cert limited to the question whether a court may deny an air carrier statutory immunity under ATSA for reporting an employee as a threat, without first determining that the air carrier's report was materially false. As documented here, the Roberts Court has shown little interest in addressing the concerns of the Fourth Estate, and its limited grant in Hoeper arguably continues that trend.

 

Posted by Lyrissa Lidsky on July 10, 2013 at 11:22 AM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Lyrissa Lidsky, Torts | Permalink

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