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B.C. man sues WestJet for defamation following face-mask dispute

Man alleges flight attendants made 'false and defamatory' statements to authorities.
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WestJet flight attendants allegedly told authorities that Ryan Robinson was "unruly" on a flight between Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Vancouver-based Ryan Robinson is suing WestJet Airlines Ltd. and two flight attendants for defaming him by telling authorities false statements about him not wearing a face mask and being unruly on a flight between Vancouver and Winnipeg during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robinson claimed that on this flight, he was only not wearing his face mask twice. The first time, he said in his Nov. 14 notice of civil claim, was when he had taken a sip of a drink and then forgot to put his face mask back on. The second time was when his face mask had slipped to his chin, he claimed.

In both instances, Robinson said, he complied with flight attendant requests. 

Flight attendants allegedly told authorities that he was not wearing his face mask four times, and that he was unco-operative.

One flight attendant, who Robinson identified as Thomas, "became agitated," and as the plane was descending, Thomas provided Robinson with a so-called "red card," which meant that Robinson was banned from flying on WestJet for one year. 

When the plane landed in Winnipeg on Nov. 17, 2021, four uniformed police officers boarded the  plane and arrested Robinson, he said. 

"The plaintiff's arrest and subsequent prosecution was without probable cause or reasonable grounds," Robinson said in his lawsuit that was filed in BC Supreme Court. "The plaintiff was held by police for two hours before being released to meet his son."

Robinson claimed that his arrest, prosecution and subsequent regulatory proceedings were caused by false and defamatory statements that Thomas and another flight attendant, named Metcalfe, told authorities. 

Robinson said that the flight attendants told authorities that he was "unruly," and that he had refused to comply with instructions. The flight attendants allegedly said that Robinson was argumentative, taking photos and refusing to leave his mask on. Metcalfe had allegedly told police that Robinson had his mask down four times.

Robinson said in his claim that the flight attendants told police that he was given a final warning and that he would meet with police in Winnipeg. The flight attendants also said that Robinson had taken a photo of the crew and that he was "showing other passengers and laughing," he alleged.

The dispute allegedly resulted in a mulit-day trial in Winnipeg in October 2022. The flight attendants allegedly at the time repeated what Robinson maintained are false statements. 

"The trial judge found that the plaintiff had been 'substantially compliant' with the masking requirement in the Aeronautics Act," Robinson wrote. "Given the strict liability regime in Section 34, the trial judge was required to enter a conviction, but imposed no penalty on the plaintiff beyond a verbal reprimand."

Transport Canada on Jan. 18, 2022, levied a substantial administrative monetary penalty against Robinson, he said.

He challenged that penalty before the Transportation Appeal Tribunal of Canada.

"In March 2023, after learning of the result of the plaintiff's criminal prosecution, Transport Canada withdrew the administrative monetary penalty," Robinson wrote.

He said in his claim that the WestJet flight attendants' false statements implied that he is violent, unpredictable, unruly and that he does not comply with directions.

He claims that this has caused a "loss of reputation" as well as humiliation and mental distress. 

Robinson is seeking general damages for defamation, general damages for malicious prosecution, aggravated damages, punitive damages, interest and costs. 

WestJet and the flight attendants have not yet filed a response to Robinson's notice of civil claim. 

None of the claims he made in his lawsuit have been proven in court. 

gkorstrom@biv.com

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