Federal jury clears Alaska Airlines in defamation case

A federal jury in Las Vegas has ruled in favor of Alaska Airlines Inc. in a defamation case brought by five Egyptian businessmen and four women.

The nine plaintiffs had sought a total of $39 million in damages. Jurors deliberated about three hours Monday before reaching a decision.

California attorney Gilbert Gaynor, who represents the plaintiffs, declined to comment Tuesday.

The nine passengers were traveling in first class on a Sept. 29, 2003, flight from Vancouver, Canada, to Las Vegas when the captain, Mike Swanigan, opted to divert the flight to Reno.

Attorney Carrie McCrea Hanlon, who represents the airline, argued that his decision was reasonable.

“He didn’t even know the country of origin of the nine plaintiffs at the time he made the decision to divert to Reno,” she said.

The defense contended that some of the plaintiffs had interfered with the flight crew by failing to follow instructions and engaging the flight attendants in a shouting match.

Hanlon said that was the only time Swanigan had diverted a flight during his 33-year career with Alaska Airlines.

The plaintiffs sought damages for defamation of character and a several-hour delay of international travel. They contended that the captain ejected all nine passengers from the plane in Reno and asked police to arrest them, although they had done nothing wrong.

No one was arrested, and all nine passengers caught another flight to Las Vegas on a different airline. However, Alaska Airlines reported the incident to federal officials, who later interviewed the passengers at their hotel in Las Vegas.

“This has weighed on the flight attendants and Captain Swanigan for the full 10 years, and it’s a tremendous relief to them to know they’ve been exonerated,” Hanlon said.

She said the case took so long to go to trial because it went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice.

The defense plans to seek fees and costs from the plaintiffs, the lawyer said, because they rejected an offer of judgment that would have awarded $10,000 to each plaintiff.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du began presiding over the trial on Feb. 12, but a family medical emergency later prevented her from continuing with the case. After a delay of several days, Senior U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks took over the case.

One of the plaintiffs, whose whereabouts are unknown, is M. Magdy H. Rasikh. His daughter Heidi is the wife of Alaa Mubarak, son of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

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