Lawsuit claims that United Airlines flight crew failed to report sexual assault of teen passenger

Lawyers representing a teen who was sexually assaulted while flying alone claim that United Airlines cabin crew did little to protect the girl and failed to report the incident. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)
Lawyers representing a teen who was sexually assaulted while flying alone claim that United Airlines cabin crew did little to protect the girl and failed to report the incident. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

A new lawsuit claims that crew members failed to take appropriate action when a teen girl was sexually assaulted on a United Airlines flight from Seattle to Newark, N.J.

The 16-year-old was flying alone for the first time on July 23, 2017, to attend a young women’s leadership conference at Princeton University, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She had dozed off, only to be awakened when Vijaykumar Krishnappa, a 29-year-old physician who was seated next to her, started touching her knee in the dark cabin.

She reportedly first thought the touch was unintentional, but his hand eventually made its way up her thigh and onto her groin area, over her leggings. She said she felt “trapped and afraid” but called for help once Krishnappa slid his hand into the waistband of her pants, according to court documents. Krishnappa later pleaded guilty to assault and served a 90-day sentence.

But the teen and her mother say the conviction was no thanks to United Airlines, whose in-flight crew did little to protect the girl — and now they’re suing the airline. Sam Daheim, one of the attorneys who has filed the lawsuit on behalf of the teen and her family, says the crew members violated federal law by failing to report the assault to authorities.

According to the lawsuit, the flight attendant who responded to the teen’s call for help simply said to Krishnappa, “Not cool, dude,” and ushered the hysterically crying victim to a new seat a few rows ahead, where she was still in the man’s line of vision for the next four hours. The crew allegedly offered her a bag of peanuts and neglected to question her or Krishnappa, nor did they investigate the incident any further.

When the plane landed, Krishnappa was allegedly allowed to walk away freely without being detained, and the inconsolable teen called her mother to tell her what had happened. The girl was so shaken up she never made it to her conference; instead, her mother flew out to meet her and escort her to the police to file a report.

The FBI were called in to conduct an investigation, as sexual assault aboard an aircraft is a federal crime. Investigators pulled the flight manifest to identify the passenger who had been seated next to the girl, who later identified Krishnappa in a photo lineup. He was arrested the next day, according to India news outlet NDTV.

Daheim and fellow attorney Julie Kays called United’s conduct during the flight “unconscionable” in a statement shared with Yahoo Lifestyle. They allege the airline “failed to take reasonable and common-sense steps to protect our minor client from sexual assault.” They also claim the crew member who addressed the situation “did nothing to report the matter to law enforcement” and that the victim “frantically sought out law enforcement after she got off the plane and reported the assault.”

Now the teen “wants justice,” the attorneys wrote. “She does not want another unaccompanied minor to be sexually assaulted on a United flight because United cannot be bothered to take simple common-sense precautions to protect minors from such an attack.”

But United Airlines representatives insist that they acted appropriately and cooperated fully. A spokesperson told Yahoo Lifestyle in a statement: “The safety and well-being of our customers is our top priority. Our customer was immediately moved to a different seat when the flight attendant was made aware of the issue. We fully cooperated with law enforcement’s investigation, and the perpetrator has been permanently banned from flying United. Sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior, intimidation or predation have absolutely no place anywhere in our society — including in our industry and on our aircraft.”

The FBI says the percentage of people who are sexually assaulted aboard aircrafts is relatively low compared with the number of U.S. citizens who fly each year — tens of millions — but reported assaults are on the rise.

“Even one victim is unacceptable,” special agent David Gates says on the bureau’s website.

The FBI advises that victims of assault “report it immediately to the flight crew and ask that they record the attacker’s identity and report the incident.”

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