NEWS
02/07/2020 21:21 EST

James Potok Coronavirus Prank: What Might Be Next For The Guy Who Diverted WestJet Flight

The plane was heading to Jamaica when the aspiring rapper's comments made it turn back to Toronto.

An aspiring rapper from Toronto who pulled a coronavirus prank while on a WestJet flight from Toronto to Montego Bay, Jamaica said he is “sorry” for pulling the publicity stunt.

James Potok told CityNews he stood up as the plane neared Jamaica on Monday and said, “Can I get everybody’s attention, please. I just came back from Hunan province, the capital of the coronavirus. I’m not feeling too well. Thank you.”

For the record, the novel coronavirus originated in the city of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.

His “joke” didn’t go over very well, and he was escorted to the back of the plane and given a mask and gloves. The plane turned around and headed back to Toronto and hundreds of passengers had their plans disrupted as part of what Potok has described as an attempt to go “viral.”

“I figured it would invoke some type of reaction, not on the plane. More people seeing on social media, going, ‘Wow, this kid’s got some balls,’ or, ‘This kid is crazy,’” Potok told Global News.

He added that he’d stood up to make announcements on planes in the past without incident and didn’t think he would be taken seriously.

“Any publicity for myself is good publicity,” he said, before acknowledging that what he’d done was wrong. “I ruined the flight for 200-and-some-odd people. I ruined their flight.”

WestJet apologized to passengers that were affected by the incident. 

“Out of an abundance of caution, our crew followed all protocols for infectious disease on board, including sequestering an individual who made an unfounded claim regarding coronavirus,” a spokesperson for the airline told HuffPost Canada.

She said the airline’s procedures are “the same for any suspected infectious disease be it measles, SARS, MERS, etc.,” but did not elaborate when asked if the plane would have turned around if a passenger had announced that they had something like the measles.

As of Friday, the novel coronavirus had infected nearly 35,000 people globally — the vast majority of victims in China — and had killed 720. Canada has seven confirmed cases.

Police said Potok “was assessed by medical staff upon arrival at Pearson Airport” and did not have any symptoms.

WestJet also postponed another flight from Jamaica. The other 242 passengers on Potok’s flight were put on an added flight the next day.

Potok “apologized” in a YouTube video Wednesday and also took the opportunity to talk about his music videos.

The 28-year-old has been charged with mischief and breach of recognizance. The second charge referring to Potok violating the terms of a peace bond.

Tony Paisana, a criminal defence lawyer and the Canadian Bar Association’s criminal justice secretary, said a charge of mischief — in this case likely mischief over $5,000 due to the value of the plane — is designed to catch situations that don’t fit nicely into other sections of the criminal code. It’s often used to charge people who destroy property.

“But it’s also a criminal offence to obstruct or interfere with a lawful use and enjoyment of property… so in this context, I suppose that the allegation would be that this individual has interfered with the airline’s use of its plane,” Paisana told HuffPost Canada.

Mischief over $5,000 carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and has no minimum sentence.

The Criminal Code specifies that to be convicted of mischief, a person’s actions must be “willful.”

Screenshot/Youtube
A screenshot from James Potok's apology video on YouTube.

By Potok’s own admission, he intentionally pulled the prank, though it’s possible his defence team could argue that he didn’t expect the plane to turn around because of what he said — seeing as it is possible it wouldn’t have returned to Toronto if Potok had proclaimed to have a different illness.

“If he said [he had the flu] there would be no reason probably to think that the plane would be diverted, whereas when he said something like ‘I have Coronavirus’... it’s arguable whether or not he would have understood that would cause a significant reaction,” Paisana said.

“It’s debatable. I don’t know the answer… I’m sure if it came to it that would be something that would be argued that, you know, his intention wasn’t to divert the plane. It was just a prank. And how did he know that that would be what happened? But I couldn’t tell you how someone would decide that. I could see arguments on both sides.”

Boarding1Now via Getty Images

This is far from the first time someone saying something on a plane has forced a plane to turn around or be diverted.

Last year, a drunk passenger on a different WestJet flight was fined $16,000 for the fuel the plane had to dump as it turned back to Calgary on its way to London after the man became belligerent towards the crew and other passengers.

The actual cost of the flight turning back for WestJet was likely over $150,000, according to the Washington Post, but it’s unclear whether the airline pursued additional money through a civil case.

A week ago, a plane from London to Los Cabos, Mexico was diverted to Winnipeg after an unruly passenger started making threats and had to be restrained. He and a second passenger were both escorted off the flight, arrested and charged with a few charges including mischief over $5,000 — for the cost of diverting the plane.

In 2016, a Sunwing flight was escorted back to Toronto by two CF-18 fighter jets after a drunk passenger told her equally intoxicated friend they should “bomb the plane over Cuba and post it on Facebook.” 

In 2012, late Liberal Senator Rod Zimmer and his then-wife Maygan Sensenberger were both charged after they had an argument on an Air Canada flight and some witnesses said she threatened to slit his throat and bring down the plane, CTV News reported. The plane was close enough to its destination that it continued to Saskatoon and landed safely.

Michael Bryant, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s executive director, said that a person’s speech on an airplane can get them charged if the airline or passengers felt endangered by it.

“Canadian criminal law applies on airlines departing from Canada.  The individual has all the regular rights when investigated: to remain silent, to counsel, to due process.  But the airline is within its rights to do what they did if they apprehended his conduct as either presenting a serious risk or causing a disturbance that interfered with their doing their job,” Bryant told HuffPost via email.

Potok is expected in court in March.