TV station faces lawsuit for inaccurate report of pilot names

Asiana Airlines Flight 241 Passenger Photos

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) — Asiana Airlines says it will proceed with its planned lawsuit against an Oakland, California, television station, but it’s not going to pursue legal action against the National Transportation Safety Board.

Over the weekend, the Korean airline had said it would sue both entities after an intern at the NTSB mistakenly confirmed “inaccurate and offensive” names as those of the pilots of Flight 214, which crash-landed nine days ago at San Francisco International Airport.

The bogus names that phonetically spelled out phrases such as “Something Wrong” and “We Too Low” were read during KTVU’s noon broadcast Friday. The airline called the report “demeaning” and said it was “reviewing possible legal action.”

On Monday morning, the airline seemed to have a partial change of heart, at least concerning the NTSB.

Airline spokesman Na Chul-hee said Asiana has retained a U.S. law firm to file a defamation claim against the TV station. But, he said, the company didn’t have plans to file a separate suit against the NTSB.

“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,” he said.

KTVU anchor Tori Campbell read the names Friday. The news station, a CNN affiliate, later apologized on air (see video below) and on its website.

“Nothing is more important to us than having the highest level of accuracy and integrity, and we are reviewing our procedures to ensure this type of error does not happen again,” KTVU posted on its website.

The key to a defamation case is to determine whether what was said damages an entity’s reputation and causes injury, and what care was taken, if any, to prevent that, said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and the dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.

“It’s very difficult to conceive of a defamation suit prevailing here,” he told CNN. “Everyone who heard this understood it was a prank. And as ludicrous as the report was, at least the news station made a call to try to check.”

KTVU said the names it gave were confirmed by an NTSB official in Washington before they were aired.

The NTSB apologized for the “inaccurate and offensive” names, which it said were erroneously confirmed by a summer intern.

“Earlier today, in response to an inquiry from a media outlet, a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft,” the NTSB said Friday in a statement.

Paulson notes that the real names of pilots were not given in the news report.

“Where is the real damage? Yes, it was tasteless and undoubtedly it caused some short-term emotional distress, but nothing that rises to the level of litigation,” he said.

It was not immediately clear who produced the fake names, but the NTSB said it was not the intern.

“The names were presented, by the station, to the intern for confirmation,” NTSB spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. “The intern did not make up the names and provide them to the station.”

The NTSB said it does not release or confirm the identities of crew members or other people involved in transportation accidents.

“We work hard to ensure that only appropriate factual information regarding an investigation is released and deeply regret today’s incident,” the NTSB statement said.

The NTSB did not identify the intern, but said, “Appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.”

Asiana identified the pilot at the controls of the Boeing 777 that undershot its approach and clipped a seawall before crash-landing on the runway as Lee Kang-Kuk. There were two other pilots in the cockpit at the time of the accident.

Asiana Flight 214 was carrying 291 passengers and 16 crew members when it crash-landed on July 6 on the runway after striking a seawall.

Three passengers died, including a girl who died of her injuries Friday morning. More than 180 others were injured.