Asiana's odd lawsuit threat

Wednesday , July 17, 2013 - 1:37 PM

Erik Wemple

As most folks on the Internet now know, San Francisco’s KTVU-TV committed a massive mistake in the aftermath of the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214. It rushed onto the air last Friday with this exclusive report:

“KTVU has just learned the names of the four pilots who were on board the flight. They are captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, [redacted] and Bang Ding Ow. ... We are working to determine exactly what roles each of them played. ...”

Anyone who had taken the step of sounding out those names would have realized that they were a racially insensitive (and unfunny) joke. Yet KTVU said that it had secured confirmation from an official of the National Transportation Safety Board — who turned out to have been an intern.

The station issued statements of regret. But they did not appease Asiana Airlines.

From the Associated Press: “Asiana has decided to sue KTVU-TV to ‘strongly respond to its racially discriminatory report’ that disparaged Asians, Asiana spokeswoman Lee Hyomin said.

CNN quoted an airline spokesman as saying, “After a legal review, the company decided to file a lawsuit against the network because it was their report that resulted in damaging the company’s image.”

It will be a tough case to make. To win a judgment against the television station, the airline must prove that the false report so injured its reputation that it resulted in the loss of business.

But if Asiana Airlines suffers a loss of business these days, what will have been the cause? We’ll throw out two options:

1) A crash after an Asiana aircraft approached San Francisco International Airport too slowly, leaving three people dead.

2) A roughly 30-second report on a local TV station using fake pilot names for the flight.

Tough call there.

The racial insensitivity in the broadcast is fully protected under U.S. law, notes attorney Jeffrey Pyle. Furthermore, for purposes of a defamation case, Asiana Airlines would be treated as a public figure, so Asiana would have to show that KTVU acted with “actual malice” in delivering its report.

If Asiana wants the public to continue pondering the San Francisco crash, it’ll hotly pursue this litigation. It’ll surely kick-start a wonderful public debate: Is the airline worst at PR, law or aviation?

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