A former flight instructor at the Mount Airy/Surry County Airport has filed suit against the airport, manager John Spane, Spane’s personal business, and the airport’s governing board, alleging a concerted effort to destroy his business and reputation.
In the suit, filed on Jan. 7, in Surry Count Superior Court, James Michael Venable, operator of Foothills Aviation LLC, alleges Spane made derogatory comments to potential customers in an attempt to get them to take flight instruction from his business, Ra-Tech Aviation.
In addition to monetary damages, Venable is seeking to have Spane removed from his position at the airport.
The suit alleges that Spane has a conflict of interest, since he’s an operator of a flight instruction business while simultaneously serving as manager of the airport.
In addition, Venable alleges that Spane has made a concerted effort to ruin his business and secure customers for Ra-Tech, and used the power of the Airport Authority to attract students to his business.
“Defendent Airport Authority, in a memo by (Authority Chair John Springthorpe)… opined that the aviation community at the airport is not big enough to support competing flight training operations,” the suit alleges. “This aviation community is not identified specifically; however, upon information and belief such community includes and may consist of only defendants Spane and Ra-Tech, and other defendant airport authority board members.”
Venable says that the April 2012, memo from Springthorpe also notes that “(Venable’s) success in attracting students indicates that the offerings from the FBO (fixed base operator, or airport service center) are lacking in some way.”
As a result of the memo, Venable says, the airport authority forbid him from using the airport to teach student pilots.
According to the suit, Spane also made derogatory comments about Venable to potential students throughout last summer in an effort to convince them that he was an incompetent instructor.
In one of several allegations of defamation, the suit alleges that around July 29, Spane made the following comments about Venable to specifically-identified potential customers:
• That Venable had crashed multiple airplanes.
• That he had been “run off,” and was banned from the airport for violations of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and “stealing students.”
• That he over-charged students.
• That the FAA was “getting ready” to take (Venable’s) pilot and instructors’ licenses “so it would be a waste of time to begin taking flight instruction from him.”
• That the local airport authority is currently investigating Venable for criminal activity in connection with and related to his multiple crashes.
• “Spane added that if… I wanted to learn how to crash, go see Mike Venable,” the suit reads.
Claims for Relief
In his plea for damages supporting a defamation of character charge against all defendants, Venable said there has been no criminal misconduct or FAA investigation.
“Defendant Spane’s statements were false. Plaintiff Mike Venable has a proven track record of competence, and there is no evidence that he has ever failed to act in the best interests of his flight students,” Venable alleges in the suit. “Moreover, (Venable) has no criminal record and is not under investigation by the FAA, nor has he ever been.”
The “false, defamatory” statements have cost Venable students and have “irreparably injured (Venable) and his company…”
On the defamation charge, Venable is seeking punitive damages in excess of $10,000.
Venable is also alleging deceptive and unfair business practices by Spane and Ra-Tech, saying the alleged comments to potential students were made in an effort to lure customers to Ra-Tech.
He is seeking an award of monetary damages for all losses of business; an injunction against Spane to “cease and desist making the false, defamatory comments;” the removal of Spane as airport manager; unspecified punitive damages; the costs associated with filing the suit; three times the normal damages that would be awarded in such a case; and any further relief the Court deems proper.
Venable is seeking a jury trial.
In response to an inquiry for comment, Springthorpe said the airport authority has appointed a “Litigation Committee” to respond to the suit. They have retained Greensboro attorney Steven Weaver to handle the case.
Weaver, Springthorpe said, will be filing an answer to the suit, but he did not have a date.
“The allegations in the complaint are meritless and the authority will assert a vigorous defense,” Springthorpe said. “Given the nature of pending litigation, further inquiries should be directed to the airport authority’s attorney.”
The FAA has no record of any enforcement action against Venable, according to Kathleen Bergen of the administration’s Atlanta office.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.