Parents of 13 Year Old Groped on Flight to Portland Suing American Airlines. And They Should Lose.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the man who was charged with “abusive sexual contact” after inappropriate touching of an unaccompanied minor on an American Airlines Dallas – Portland flight. Apparently the flight wasn’t full but he chose the middle seat next to the young girl rather than the empty aisle in his own row. Creepy.

I concluded that there are awful passengers in the sky, because there are awful people in the world. Flying is increasingly democratic. A broad cross section of people travel side-by-side across the country every day, and that includes — and necessarily will include — a small minority of awful people, and a small minority of people who do awful things.

That’s not satisfying, but the truth is incidents are rare on planes just as they’re relatively rare in society (though when they happen they make news).

The parents of the 13 year old girl groped while enroute to Portland are now suing American Airlines for $10 million.

Attorney Brent Goodfellow filed the suit Tuesday in Portland, alleging the June incident caused his client extreme fear and psychological trauma.

…’This horrendous set of events lasted approximately 30 minutes without American’s intervention.’

Authorities have said an attendant on the Dallas-to-Portland flight was delivering snacks when she noticed Camp’s hand in the victim’s crotch area.

She saw the girl shed a single tear and quickly separated the two.

But the girl’s family says the airline was negligent in supervising the 13-year-old – especially after they had to pay a $150 fee for her to travel as an unaccompanied minor.

What happened to this girl was terrible. And it makes sense for the parents to sue American, rather than just the guy who did it, because they have money.

However it was an American flight attendant who spotted something amiss, stopped it, and seated the offending passenger away from the minor. At some level, thank them, don’t sue them. (The girl didn’t raise an objection herself – she was understandably frozen — the American flight attendant was vigilant and stepped in.)

The family argues that American was negligent though — they paid American a $150 unaccompanied minor fee, so American should watch the minor. This is where things get dangerous.

  • Surely a $150 fee doesn’t make the airline liable for anything that happens to the child. If it did no airline would be willing to accept an unaccompanied minor, or they’d have to charge a much higher price.

  • Were they even negligent? The flight attendant paid attention and put a stop to the abusive behavior by another passenger.

  • And that’s not what you’re paying the airline for. You may want to believe a $150 fee gets the airline to act like a parent from dropoff to pickup. But here’s the service American sells:

    Our unaccompanied minor service is to ensure your child is boarded onto the aircraft, introduced to the flight attendant, chaperoned during connections and released to the appropriate person at their destination.

    The service does not include any inflight monitoring.

What did surprise me, though, is that the required unaccompanied minor form doesn’t contain stronger language on release of liability.

However, the form itself looks like a .pdf of a bad photocopy — and doesn’t look like it’s gotten much attention in some time. For instance, it contemplates the possibility of transfer of an unaccompanied minor to another airline when American’s website specifically states this is not permitted.

An incident like this may cause American Airlines to update its form.

Ultimately I’m thankful that kids can often be more resilient than they’re given credit for, and I’m hopeful she gets the help she needs. It’s natural to want to place blame for a terrible incident. But I think it’s hard to get beyond the perpetrator.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I have been a Flight Attendant for 26 years and fly for a major U.S. carrier. The FAA requires 1 Flight Attendant per flight for every 50 seats on the aircraft. (A fifty seat plane requires only 1 Flight Attendant, a 100 seat aircraft requires 2, and so on.) Therefore, mainline domestic flights have 3-4 crew members for each narrow-body flight. These planes hold 130-185 passengers on average. Flight Attendants are charged with maintaining safety and security to the best of their ability. In flight service duties usually require 1-2 crew to be in First Class during most of the flight. That leaves, at most, 2 crew members in the main cabin which seats 120-170 passengers. These 2 must be vigilant for fire, mechanical problems, medical issues that arise with I’ll passengers, constantly remain alert to unusual behavior to thwart would be terrorists, monitor lavatories for suspicious behavior, attend to pilots needs, operate entertainment systems and their aircraft electronic tablets which contain passenger/flight information and their 1000+ page safety manuals, put together heavy, complex catering components, serve each of the 120-170 passengers drinks and sell a variety of food items. At the same time, particularly in the summer and during holidays, they see to the needs of 1-15 individual unaccompanied minors. It’s impossible to be by the side of every minor during boarding, taxi, flight, and deplaning. The only way to be sure to prevent the rare instances described in this article, is for a parent to hire an escort and pay for their seat in order for the child to be under constant observation.

  2. @Chris

    Yes, I would not be so foolish as to think that $150 has bought me 24 continuous supervision of my child. Who in their right mind could believe that? Parents who send their children unaccompanied on any kind of travel should first be confident that their child is prepared to handle themselves in situations with strangers. If that is not the case, the parents should not have the child travel alone and should be with their child or have a trusted companion escort the child.

    It is simple math that if the costs go up for an airline to transport UM’s they will go up industry wide. The insurance companies are not going to raise the rates for one airline in isolation if there is nothing to indicate this is not an underestimated industry wide risk, which it will be if lawsuits like this against the airlines are successful. BTW – It is well known that lawyers sue every party they can in liability cases specifically because they are searching for the deep pockets. If insurance costs or any other cost goes up in relation to transporting UM’s, the charge for doing this will go up at all airlines too.

    Perhaps the truth is that in today’s society with the expectations people have, as judged by many of the comments here, is that the UM fee is far too low and should be raised substantially. I hope this does not happen because I have children and should I wish to have them travel alone, I would prefer to prepare them to travel alone and pay a lower fee with the expectation that they can handle themselves without constant supervision.

    I am not blaming the parents. I know nothing about them. I certainly feel terrible for the victim. What happened here was wrong. The man should be punished. If the airline was negligent, they should have a liability. But the expectation that you are getting the minute by minute supervision some people here are claiming to expect for $150 is just ridiculous.

  3. @ the litigious folks – I’ve read lots of posts with strong opinions on what happened. Where did you all find an unbiased or detailed response from AA? From what I can find, all the “facts” are from the plaintiff’s lawyer or the father or the suit. How does anyone really know what happened?

  4. Taking a cue from the solemn events in Dallas today, Americans should take more time and effort to understand each other and our different points of view rather than forcefully declare that our position and viewpoint is the only reasonable one.

    Gary perhaps is merely looking at the matter with the unaccompanied minor more from his financial background rather than as a legal analysis. Thus he may approach this situation from a “benefit of the bargain” or financial perspective. In other words, did the family get the services they paid for? The family paid “only” $150 so they shouldn’t expect anything other than getting the minor from A to B. Actually supervising the minor would cost extra. Airlines might like that concept. They could charge more for various levels of protection to a minor. Pay $500 and they will protect a minor from 99% of criminal activity. Pay $1,000 and the airline will guarantee the minor won’t get sick from the food, etc. You can supply other examples.

    Many of the comments, including mine, approached this situation from a “duty of care” legal perspective. Under that concept, an airline owes the same duty of care to its passengers irrespective of how much it charges for its services. Cheap tickets don’t insulate an airline from liability if the plane crashes because the airline fails to take expensive safety precautions, or the airline damages luggage because the passenger did not pay enough to ensure hiring competent baggage handlers.

    Reasonable people can find merit in either approach.

  5. I’m generally reminded on EVERY flight that, first and foremost, flight attendants are on the plane for my safety. Even if her parents hadn’t paid an extra $150, the airline had a duty to protect this girl from a sexual predator because the flight attendants on board KNEW she was traveling alone. Not one of them thought it was odd this man took a middle seat next to a young teen on a plane that wasn’t full? Was it too much trouble to pull out a manifest and figure out if the guy was in the right seat? No one had the presence of mind to figure out he stalked this child? What would the flight attendants have done if they didn’t know she was traveling alone? Just thought it was groping as usual in coach? In a civilized society we all have a duty to look out for others. In this case, the crew should be held to a high standard based on what they knew.

  6. No they don’t have an obligation to babysit someone’s kid. The parent should come along if they are that concerned. What I don’t get though is this guy moved to the seat next to the girl? That wasn’t his assigned seat? To ,me that makes AA very liable. I expect staff to know which seats are assigned and which are open. If they let an intoxicated predator take a seat next to a child and didn’t notice this until after the assault started and lasted for 30 mins to me is unacceptable. Also, there are reports that this guy was intoxicated and mumbling to himself etc. It leads me to wonder whether he should have been allowed to board to begin with.

  7. Have to say I disagree with you here. If the introduction to the flight attendant was actually done, the FA’s in that cabin should have known she was an unaccompanied minor, should know who is/is not sitting next to her per the manifest and should have made that person move back to their original seat. No one is asking to be babysit the entire flight, but 1) I cant believe a flight attendant does not have the time to take a 60 second walk through the cabin and spend 3 seconds each checking on 0-15 unaccompanied minors several times per flight (isn’t this part of ensuring safety of your passengers and customers??). No disrespect intended, but we have all seen FAs reading or chatting in the back of the plane on all but the shortest flights. And 2, a simple common sense change to AA’s process for the FAs to be informed of who is/is not sitting in the same row and not allowing passengers to move next to unaccompanied minors would have stopped this particular case sooner and reduce but not eliminate problems. This would cost the airline nothing to do and shouldn’t add to fees charged.

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