Baez v. JetBlue Airways Corp., No. 14-2754-cv (2d Cir. July 16, 2015).
Rosalinda Baez was booked on a JetBlue flight to Austin. She checked her bag but showed up at the gate after the doors had closed. Baez was peeved and, according to her, she asked the JetBlue gate attendant whether it wasn’t a “security risk” to let the plane fly off with her bag, but without her on board. “What if there was a bomb in the bag?” she asked. When the attendant told her that the TSA would have learned of any bomb, Baez said, “TSA—my ass,” and stormed off.
The attendant then apparently reported an inaccurate version of Baez’s words. She told her supervisor that Baez had said there was a bomb in her bag and that the TSA couldn’t detect a bomb. This information, in turn, was reported to the FBI, who detained Baez. Baez was eventually charged with making a false bomb threat.
Baez sued the attendant and JetBlue, the attendant’s employer, for defamation and other torts. In response, the defendants invoked the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, or ATSA, which shields airlines and their employees for voluntarily reporting “threat[s] to aircraft or passenger safety, or terrorism,” as long as a report isn’t materially and recklessly false. The district court agreed with the defendants that ATSA shielded them from liability, and so dismissed Baez’s claims on summary judgment.
The Second Circuit now affirms, holding that even if JetBlue’s report to authorities was false, it wasn’t materially false. The test for materiality under ATSA is whether an accurate account of Baez’s words would have produced a different effect on the mind of a reasonable security officer. Baez can’t satisfy that test here, the Second Circuit says, because reasonable law enforcement officers would have followed up on even the statements that Baez admits she made. Even vague and ambiguous references to bombs on planes will prompt law enforcement to action, so the defendants here are shielded from civil liability under ATSA.