US Airways Pilot Demands New Times' Notes; Latest in Suit Against Whistleblowing Flight Attendants


Two weeks ago, we told you the shocking story of three local flight attendants facing a lawsuit from a US Airways pilot. Their crime? Daring to report their safety concerns to federal regulators.

Now New Times is getting sucked into the litigation. Henry Stein, the Mesa-based attorney representing First Officer Ed Gannon, filed a subpoena last week demanding that we turn over all our notes, as well as any documents provided to us by the flight attendants. He's also, apparently, attempting to subpoena information about people who've posted messages on the Web site erected by the flight attendants to raise money for their defense. Doesn't this guy have anything better to do?

A little background: As America West Flight 851 was about to leave Calgary, Alberta in 2003, all three flight attendants on board grew alarmed by the presence of some frosty contamination on the wings -- and the pilots' insistence that there was no reason to de-ice them before takeoff. Ice on the wings can be a huge deal; just look at some of the coverage of the Contintental flight that crashed in Buffalo, New York, last week, and you'll get the picture.

Finally, thanks to the flight attendants' persistence, the first officer on Flight 851, Gannon, finally agreed to de-ice. But upon landing in Phoenix, the flight attendants were alarmed enough to report the incident to the FAA.

To them, this was a question of safety. And though the FAA ultimately closed its investigation without taking action, and even agreed to foot the bill for some of First Officer Ed Gannon's attorney's fees, we think it's pretty clear the flight attendants did the right thing by reporting their concerns. 

But Gannon didn't take the incident as a teachable moment. Instead, he filed suit against flight attendants Paula Walker, Brian Shunick, and Sue Burris in Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging defamation.

The suit appears to be the very definition of frivolous.

"Flight attendants are not only acting from a moral oligation when they report problems like this, but there's also a statutory rule requiring them to do so," says Daniel S. Riley, an attorney at Curry, Pearson & Wooten representing the flight attendants. And, in Arizona, statements made in reports to agencies like the FAA, the police, the State Bar, or even the Better Business Bureau, are also "immune" from defamation claims, Riley says. The flight attendants were clearly within their rights.

But Judge Christopher Whitten initially resisted dismissing Gannon's claims on summary judgement. (He tossed out some of Gannon's arguments, including "infliction of emotional distress," but kept alive the defamation claim.) As the suit drags on, the flight attendants have been forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their defense -- bizarrely, US Airways refuses to cover them.

Now you can add New Times to the list of people being forced to pay lawyers so Gannon can work out his issues in the courtroom. Sigh. 

But there is one way we might get off the hook. Last week, the new judge on the case, Judge Louis Araneta, heard the flight attendants' lawyers argue that he should toss the entire case out of court. If the judge does so, and does it soon, we'll be off the hook.

You can bet we're hoping for a good quick verdict on this one. Times are hard enough; who's got money for lawyers?

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske