ATSA immunizes airline and employee from liability to customer who made bomb reference and disparaged TSA

Baez v. JetBlue Airways Corporation (2d. Cir. July 16, 2015).  The plaintiff checked baggage for her JetBlue flight from JFK to Austin, Texas.  However, she appeared at the gate late, after the aircraft’s door had been closed, so the gate agent refused to let her board.  The plaintiff admitted that she then made what the Second Circuit described as a “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?”  The plaintiff alleged that the agent responded, “TSA agents would know if there was a bomb in the bag,” to which the plaintiff replied, “TSA–my ass,” and walked away.

The gate agent reported the conversation to her supervisor, who alerted the airline’s security personnel and TSA.  JetBlue rerouted the aircraft as a security measure and searched all the checked baggage after it landed.  The plaintiff’s bag did not contain a bomb.  But it did contain marijuana residue.  The plaintiff was charged under 49 U.S.C. § 46507(1) with making a false bomb threat.  The government dropped the charge, and the plaintiff pleaded guilty to charges based on the marijuana residue found in her bag.

The plaintiff sued JetBlue for “a host of claims,” including negligent supervision, retention, training and hiring, defamation, false arrest and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  She sued the gate agent as well.

The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on the ground that they were immune from suit under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, 49 U.S.C. § 44941.  Among other things, ATSA immunizes airlines and their employees from any liability for reporting “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 a law enforcement officer.  Immunity is not provided for reports that are “materially false.”  A report is materially false if an accurate report regarding the “suspicious transaction” at issue would have had a different effect on the mind of a “reasonable security officer,” i.e., if an accurate report would have caused such officer to decide not to investigate the report.

Before the Second Circuit, the plaintiff argued that the district court had erred by deciding whether the gate agent’s statements were materially false at the summary judgment stage, as that issue should been decided by a jury.  The appeals court disagreed and affirmed the district court.  It concluded that the gate agent’s report was not materially false because “a reasonable officer would necessarily have followed up on the statements Baez admitted she made,” i.e., such officer would have investigated the “report of a disgruntled passenger who adverted to a bomb in luggage and deprecated the agency responsible for detecting such bombs.”


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