Airline employees cannot be held liable if they misinterpret a passenger's reference to a bomb as a threat when they report it to security authorities as long as their statements are not false on key facts, an appeals court said Thursday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan gave workers plenty of leeway as it rejected a $50 million lawsuit brought by Rosalinda Baez, a former female executive.
In an opinion written by Circuit Judge Dennis Jacobs, a three-judge panel said it was following Supreme Court precedent in finding that an air carrier and its employees are immune from liability unless their report is materially false.
"At an airport, a bare reference to a bomb may be enough to set off the chain of events that resulted in Baez's detention, interrogation, and arrest by the FBI," the ruling said. "A gate agent or airline manager may not confidently distinguish between a veiled threat and a comment expressing genuine concerns about security."
The 2nd Circuit said responses must be determined by the Transportation Security Administration or other law enforcement agencies.
Baez, earning $190,000 annually as the vice president of a technology company, had residences in Dallas and Manhattan when she prepared to board a flight from Kennedy International Airport in New York to Austin, Texas, in April 2008.
As she approached the gate, she was told the plane's door had closed and she could not board. Upset, she asked the gate agent about her checked luggage and was told it was headed to Austin.
Baez then made a cryptic reference to the possibility of a bomb in her luggage, asking: "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?" the 2nd Circuit said. When the agent responded that the TSA would know if there was a bomb in the bag, she cursed about the TSA and walked away, it added.
In ruling for JetBlue last year, Judge Eric Vitaliano in Brooklyn noted that the gate agent's recollection was hazier, since she testified that Baez's version of her statement was accurate before calling that testimony a mistake and claiming Baez said: "I have a bomb in my bag so you should turn the plane around."
TSA detained Baez and rerouted the flight she missed to Richmond, Virginia, where no bomb was found. Baez was interrogated by FBI agents for five hours before she was arrested and charged with making a bomb threat. The charge was later dismissed during a plea bargain after she pleaded guilty to having marijuana in her checked luggage. She was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay JetBlue $13,448 in restitution for the cost of rerouting her flight. Baez lost her job.
Her lawyer, Jon Norinsberg, said they were "greatly disappointed" and will likely appeal to the Supreme Court. He said his 38-year-old client now lives out of the country and does consulting work.