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Friday, June 01, 2007

Immunity law would serve little purpose

Is immunity for those who report information the way to deal with aircraft safety?

Identical bills introduced in mid-May in the U.S. House and Senate would purport to grant immunity from civil suit anyone who reports suspicious activity that poses a threat to an aircraft.

The bills are a response to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Minneapolis from an incident last November in which US Airways removed several Islamic clerics (imams) from a flight just prior to takeoff, after receiving reports from passengers that they behaved in a way that suggested they might be planning an attack.

The bills would protect passengers who "in good faith" report suspicious activity. The bills would be effective retroactive to last November, hence would preclude suit by the clerics against the passengers. To date, the clerics do not have the names of the passengers but are suing them as "John Does," hoping to get their names from US Airways.

The scenario here -- hence the supposed need for legislation -- is more than a little strange. People who board an aircraft planning to hijack it or commit some other terrorist-type act are not likely to draw attention to themselves by engaging in suspicious conduct as the flight is preparing for departure. The Sept. 11 hijackers, from what is known, remained quiet until they were in the air.

The need to provide immunity for passengers is also not clear. There is little chance that a suit against a passenger who in good faith reports suspicious activity would pass the pre-trial stage. It was not the passengers in the November incident who removed the clerics. It was US Airways.

Backers of the legislation say that it is too easy to sue, even with no legal basis. However, great risk is taken by a plaintiff, and by a plaintiff's lawyer, in filing a frivolous lawsuit.

Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure calls for sanctions, including money sanctions, against a lawyer who files a frivolous lawsuit. The defendant may be able to collect the defendant's costs, including attorney fees, from the plaintiff.

Whatever one thinks of the aim behind the bills, they may not achieve their purpose. That is so because the bills immunize only a person who reports suspicious activity "in good faith."

The bills deny immunity to anyone who knows that the information they report is false. Thus, a plaintiff could argue that the person could not have made the report in good faith, and therefore that no immunity applies. [Link]

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