Sexual assault, air travel and COVID-19

This recently-filed sexual assault case resonates, for three reasons: the event occurred on an airplane, which, while not unheard-of and certainly underreported, is relatively rare (see; it involves a reversal of the usual gender roles; and it’s an early glimpse of the approaching wave of coronavirus-related litigation:

An NFL player said he was sexually harassed and assaulted by a female passenger on a United Airlines flight and accused two flight attendants of failing to properly respond to his complaints.  The incident happened during a late-night plane ride in February….The unnamed athlete…filed the suit with another unidentified man….The player, identified as John Doe 1, and the other man, identified as John Doe 2, allege that the woman boarded the flight after a majority of the passengers were already seated and she appeared “disheveled and unbalanced.”

According to the lawsuit, the woman was in the window seat in the same row as the two men….[A]s the woman took her seat she allegedly began harassing John Doe 1, who was in the middle seat and wearing a face mask because of the coronavirus pandemic….“Assailant accosted John Doe 1 and told him that he was ‘frightening,’ ordered him to move to the front and use the air in the front of the plane because he was sick,” the suit states.  John Doe 1 “respectfully responded that he was not sick and was being proactive, especially in wake of the growing COVID-19 concerns at that time.”  [T]he men saw the woman taking prescription pills and believe she was intoxicated and under the influence of drugs….

According to the lawsuit, the woman groped John Doe 1's knees and thighs.  John Doe 2…complained twice to a flight attendant…but the attendant did not take action. After John Doe 1 asked a second flight attendant for help, the woman was given a verbal warning.  But…the woman's alleged actions did not stop.  [She was] stroking her hand across John Doe’s lap toward his inner leg and caressing his chest and face.  At one point, she allegedly grabbed his penis and ripped his face mask off.  John Doe 1 jumped up from his seat and went to find a flight attendant.  The woman then moved to the middle seat and grabbed John Doe 2’s leg and groin area….She was eventually moved, but had to be put in a row with no passengers because she was still being disruptive….”

This case has been very widely reported.  A Google search of “nfl player sues united airlines” returned links to 76 (seventy-six!) unique links to the story on the first eight pages of results.  Every single article includes “NFL player” in the headline, and a number of major outlets (CBS, USA Today, Yahoo, etc.) placed the report in their sports section.  Of course, this isn’t a sports story, and the fact that John Doe 1 is an NFL player is irrelevant.  (Would the case have garnered so much attention if the plaintiffs had been two ordinary guys who wanted to preserve their anonymity?)  What’s relevant is an allegation of female on male sexual assault (not unheard-of, but unusual) occurring on an airplane during a commercial flight (ditto) and flight attendants who took no effective action to correct the situation for quite a while (unusual?).  Assuming the case moves forward, we’ll have an interesting look at what airlines teach their flight crews about dealing with passenger complaints of sexual harassment/assault.

Of particular note, at a time when states are beginning to reopen and there’s no consensus on how much risk that creates of a second wave of COVID-19 cases, is the fact that the confrontation began with an argument over the plaintiff’s mask and ended with the defendant ripping it off.  The coronavirus pandemic is certain to lead to voluminous litigation covering a wide variety of subject matters and continuing for years to come.  We’ll be taking a look at what seems likely in a future post. 

As always, Vident Partners is ready to provide you and your firm with the right expert or experts, regardless of how unusual the circumstances may be.


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