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Justices agree to hear airline defamation case

A man holds an umbrella outside the U..S. Supreme Court in Washington June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A man holds an umbrella outside the U..S. Supreme Court in Washington June 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to consider whether an airline had legal immunity from a defamation claim after employees reported a disgruntled colleague to federal authorities as a possible security risk.

Air Wisconsin Airlines Corp, a subsidiary of Harbor Diversified Inc, says it is immune from the claims made by former pilot William Hoeper under a law passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks that encouraged airlines to share security concerns.

The 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act granted the airlines immunity from possible defamation suits as long as such reports were not intentionally false or misleading.

Hoeper won a $1.4 million judgment against the airline over an incident that took place in December 2004.

During his fourth attempt at a training test he had to pass to keep his job, Hoeper lost his temper and left the training facility in Virginia, according to court papers. From there he went to Dulles International Airport to catch a flight to his home in Denver.

In the meantime, Air Wisconsin colleagues told the Transportation Security Administration that Hoeper was disgruntled and may have a firearm under a program that allows pilots to carry guns.

Agents subsequently took Hoeper from his flight and determined he was unarmed. He was able to take a later flight. The following day, the airline told Hoeper he was terminated.

The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the $1.4 million judgment in a March 2012 ruling, saying there was evidence of "actual malice" in the airline's actions.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether the appeals court needed to determine first whether the airline's report was true before deciding if immunity applied.

Oral arguments and a ruling are due in the court's next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2014.

The case is Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-315.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and David Brunnstrom)