USA: Appelate court decides on angry passenger's Facebook and Twitter posts about an airline employee

Michael Wukoschitz's picture

An operations agent employed by Southwest Airlines brought an action against a passenger for posting allegedly false and defamatory statements on Twitter and Facebook regarding actions taken by agent when passenger attempted to board a flight. The plaintiff alledged that the defendant knowingly and intentionally, or in the alternative, with reckless disregard for the veracity of her statements had stated that she had been treated in a very impolite way when she wnated to board the aircraft togehter with her four-year-old daughter. The plaintiff felt these statements were an attempt by the defendant to paint the plaintiff  as someone that would endanger the welfare of a four-year-old child. The trial court granted the passenger’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the statements did not rise to the level of defamation, that the language could not be construed to hold the agent up to public ridicule, and that the language was not highly offensive to a reasonable person. The plaintiff filed an appeal. In her brief on appeal, the defendant amongst other things argued that the words were not offensive because the appellant worked for an airline and as the court was surely aware, airlines were notorious for bad customer service.

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee only in parts upheld the ruling. It held that while the question of whether a statement was understood by the hearers in a defamatory sense was a fact question for the jury, the preliminary question of whether the statement is at all ‘capable’ of being understood in this defamatory sense was a question of law which should be determined by the court. Statements alleged to be defamatory “should be judged within the context in which they are made” and “read as a person of ordinary intelligence would understand them in light of the surrounding circumstances. Considered in light of the entire circumstances, the statements attributed to the defendant were expressions of her frustration and complaints that she was not able to board the flight in a manner she wanted and of the circumstances surrounding her efforts. The words attributed to her could not reasonably be construed to portray the plaintiff as one who would endanger a 4-year old’s welfare.

However, the court reinstated the agent's false light invasion of privacy claim: a reasonable person could find, under the entire circumstances of the incident, that the defendants's posting of selective facts placed the plaintiff in a false light by implying that the plaintiff was rude and a bad service agent, one who was more concerned with adherence to the airline rules and procedures than the welfare of the child, and that these implications caused injury to her.

The Court of Appeals therefore remanded the case for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

Full text of judgement in case Patterson v. Grant-Herms, No. M2013-00287-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2013) available here>>.

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