Asiana Airlines confirmed on Monday that it plans to sue an Oakland, Calif. television station that reported fake names for the four pilots on a plane that crashed in San Francisco earlier this month.
Airline officials told The Associated Press that the station damaged the airline's reputation when it reported four offensive names, including "Captain Sum Ting Wong" and "Wi Tu Lo," which were also displayed on an accompanying graphic during a Friday broadcast. The station says it confirmed the names with the National Transportation Safety Board, but later realized they were false. Both the TV station and the NTSB later apologized for the mix-up.
"We pride ourselves on getting it right and having the highest of standards and integrity," KTVU's apology says. "Clearly, on Friday, that didn't happen. So again, from everyone here at KTVU, we offer our sincerest apology."
In the apology, KTVU also says the names were not read out loud before the broadcast aired, and that when they confirmed the names with someone at NTSB, they failed to ask for that person's position.
The NTSB later revealed that the person who spoke with KTVU was a summer intern who "acted outside the scope of his authority" when he confirmed the names.
"The NTSB does not release or confirm the names of crew members or people involved in transportation accidents to the media," the NTSB statement says. "We work hard to ensure that only appropriate factual information regarding an investigation is released and deeply regret today's incident."
The pilots have already come under scrutiny as part of the NTSB investigation looking into whether there was any pilot error leading up to the crash. Just seconds before the Boeing 777 slammed into a runway at San Francisco International Airport, crew members realized the plane was traveling far below its target landing speed and tried to abort the landing, according data recovered from the plane.
The airline had already released the names of two of the pilots, Lee Kang-kook and Lee Jung-min, the day after the crash.
An Asiana spokeswoman, Lee Hyomin, told the AP Monday that the report damaged the airline's reputation. The airline has not yet determined whether it will file a similar suit against the NTSB, Hyomin told the AP.
"The reputation of the four pilots and of the company had been seriously damaged by this report," the airline said in a released statement.
But Raleigh Levine, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law who specializes in media law, says there is "little chance" that such a lawsuit would be successful.
The airline, Levine says, would have to prove three points: that there was false information, that there was damage to someone's reputation and that the station acted with "actual malice," which means the offending party had knowledge of the false information and acted with reckless disregard.
But proving reckless disregard is a difficult point to prove, Levine says, because the station did attempt to confirm the names. And establishing that reputational damage occurred might be an even bigger hurdle.
Plaintiffs walk a fine line when pursuing defamation cases, Levine says, because they keep the matter in the public eye for even longer.
"In some ways, suing kind of defeats the purpose," Levine says. "If someone is really concerned that a story is hurting their reputation ... adding to it by threatening to sue just keeps it public and alive for longer."