This weekend, when discussing current events, I had a question posed to me: If two senior executives on a business trip get drunk on an airplane forcing the plane to make an unscheduled landing, resulting in criminal convictions and causing national embarrassment to the company, will they have any recourse if they are fired?
Of course, the question was a reference to this story. Two employees of Research in Motion did exactly that, forcing an unscheduled landing in Vancouver en route to China. They were charged with mischief, convicted (on guilty pleas), and sentenced to probation with restitution orders to the cumulative effect of over $70,000. As far as I know, the employees haven't yet been fired, but they have been suspended pending further investigation.
So what's the answer? My answer was that it will depend on the objective seriousness of the misconduct on the aircraft. It sounds extremely serious, when the news reports are saying that it was necessary that they be physically restrained, and to land the aircraft at the nearest airport. Certainly these are serious consequences, and such serious consequences will have a major impact on whether or not there is "just cause" for termination. But if you read the news coverage carefully, you'll find scarce details as to what the employees actually did. I often say that, when I read the news, I never assume I have all the relevant facts. On what I have seen, even if it is all true, it still leaves open the possibility that the flight crew's reaction could have been an overreaction.
And really, there are two thoughts that might support such an inference: Firstly, for the last decade in particular, airlines have been quite paranoid about security. This is not a criticism; just an observation. They will react harshly to any perceived security risk. Secondly, the question arises as to how these two achieved such a state of intoxication aboard the aircraft? Were they permitted to board already drunk? Were they served the alcohol on the plane? On the ground, we hold venues that serve alcohol to very strict standards - we expect a bartender, in a raucous and loud bar setting, to identify people who have had one too many and refuse to serve them more. Is a flight crew not held to a similar standard?
One would also need to consider the objective seriousness of the conduct of each employee: If one of them was acting in a way that caused a real threat to the safety and comfort of the other passengers, justifying the flight crew's response, but the other one was involved in less serious misconduct - say, egging him on - then it may well be that just cause may exist for one of them but not the other.
That being said, pleading guilty to the resulting offences might interfere with the employees' ability to successfully take such a position in subsequent civil proceedings. To my mind, it is also an important factor that they were on a business trip. Had it been two individuals on personal travel who happened to be employees of the same company, the analysis would be altogether different. (Not to say that it couldn't constitute just cause, but the test would change.)
This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.