Airline and Agent Not Liable for False Arrest, Defamation, etc. For Reporting Angry Passenger’s Bomb Comment

Most people, especially this guy, know that saying the word “bomb” in/near an airplane or airport is a bad idea.

In Baez v. JetBlue, 14-2754-cv (2nd Cir. July 16, 2015), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of an irate passenger’s lawsuit arising from actions taken by JetBlue and its employee in response to an alleged bomb threat.

As summarized by the court, in 2008 plaintiff Rosalinda Baez appeared at her JetBlue gate in JFK Airport minutes before her flight’s scheduled departure. A JetBlue employee, defendant Malabet, told Baez that she just closed the plane’s door and that Baez wouldn’t be allowed to board the plane.

That’s when things went downhill:

Baez, upset by this turn of events, asked Malabet about her checked luggage. According to Baez, Malabet informed her that her luggage would remain on the plane and she would be able to retrieve it in Austin when she got there on a later flight. By Baez’s own account, Baez then made cryptic reference to the possibility of a bomb in her luggage: “Isn’t it a security risk to let a bag go on a plane without a passenger, what if there was a bomb in the bag?” Baez alleged that Malabet responded: “TSA agents would know if there was a bomb in the bag”; and Baez retorted “TSA—my ass” and walked away.

Baez was charged with making a false bomb threat. The case made headlines years ago, and Baez lost her job. She sued, alleging negligent supervision, retention, training, and hiring; defamation; false arrest; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, on the ground that the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, 49 U.S.C. 44941 (ATSA) provided defendants with immunity.

That statute provides:

Any air carrier or … employee of an air carrier … who makes a voluntary disclosure of any suspicious transaction relevant to a possible violation of law or regulation, relating to air piracy, a threat to aircraft or passenger safety, or terrorism, … to any employee or agent of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Justice, any Federal, State, or local law enforcement officer, or any airport or airline security officer shall not be civilly liable to any person under any law or regulation of the United States, any constitution, law, or regulation of any State or political subdivision of any State, for such disclosure.

In affirming the district court, the Second Circuit held that the ATSA provides immunity unless the report was “materially” false. It further explained:

[The relevant] standard is an objective one, involving the hypothetical significance of an omitted or misrepresented fact to a reasonable security official, rather than the actual significance of that fact to a particular security official. Any reasonable security officer would follow up on a report of a disgruntled passenger who adverted to a bomb in luggage and deprecated the agency responsible for detecting such bombs.

Furthermore, “the use of ambiguous language does not preclude a statement from being a threat, and a bad joke can fall within the scope of [49 U.S.C. § 46507(1)].” The court therefore agreed with the lower court “that a passenger who speculates aloud about whether there is a bomb in her luggage cannot be heard to complain when an airline representative reports the use of those words, even if the passenger’s precise words are misrepresented.”

It concluded that the TSA’s policy (“when in doubt, report”) “would be defeated if air carriers and their employees were exposed to liability for reporting a statement that references a bomb in luggage.”

Share This: