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Supreme Court rules for airline in pilot's defamation case

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a $1.4 million defamation verdict that a former airline pilot won against his employer.

The nine justices ruled on a 6-3 vote that Wisconsin Airlines Corp, a subsidiary of Harbor Diversified Inc, was immune from a defamation claim after employees reported a disgruntled colleague, pilot William Hoeper, to federal authorities as a possible security risk.

In December 2004 Hoeper was pulled from a flight on which he was a passenger by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration after colleagues said he was in a mentally unstable state and could be carrying a gun. Earlier that day, Hoeper lost his temper during his fourth attempt at a training test he had to pass to keep his job.

The high court agreed with the airline that it was immune from the claims under a law passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks that encouraged airlines to share security concerns.

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

"(W)e conclude that even if a jury were to find the historical facts in the manner most favorable to Hoeper, Air Wisconsin is entitled to ATSA immunity as a matter of law," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote on behalf of the court.

In a March 2012 ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the jury verdict in favor of Hoeper, saying it did not need to decide whether the comments in question were false before deciding whether the airline was immune.

The three dissenting justices agreed on Monday with the other six justices that the Colorado court was wrong on that point. But the dissenters said the court should have sent the case back for a lower court to determine whether the statement was false and whether immunity applied.

The case is Air Wisconsin v. Hoeper, U.S. Supreme Court, 12-315.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Stephen Powell)

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