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Supreme Court reinforces airlines' ability to report possible threats

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that airlines cannot be held liable for truthfully reporting a possible security threat to a federal agency.

The ruling could have repercussions as airlines report possible threats to the Transportation Security Agency involving the behavior of passengers and employees.

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The case before the Supreme Court involved a pilot.

William L. Hoeper was a pilot for Wisconsin Airlines Corp. When the airline stopped flying from Hoeper's home base of Denver in 2004 he needed to become certified in a different type of aircraft. He failed three attempts at certification.

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During a fourth and final attempt, Wisconsin Airlines said Hoepner performed poorly at a simulator and the pilot reacted angrily, saying he was being set up. The airline sent Hoepner back to Denver. Because Hoeper was a federal flight deck officer permitted "to carry a firearm while engaged in providing air transportation," and because of his alleged behavior, an airline executive notified TSA that he was a possible security threat.

The TSA removed Hoepner from the plane, searched him and asked him about the location of his firearm. He was also fired by the airline.

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Hoepner then filed suit and a jury found that he had been defamed by the airline. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed.

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But the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in the opinion that the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act's immunity for airlines remained intact as long as the airline made "materially true statements."

The judgment was unanimous, with all nine justices signing on to the core of the opinion, though three justices partially dissented.

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