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Passenger Anne Dowling filed a claim against United Airlines on July 5, alleging that the airline failed to protect her from repeated sexual assault from another passenger during a flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to San Francisco (SFO) on July 9, 2016. The alleged assailant, Monte Wedl, is listed as a co-defendant on the lawsuit, which alleges that the airline offered Wedl three or four cocktails on board. Wedl allegedly had also consumed a dose of Ambien.

A few hours into the flight, according to the lawsuit, Dowling awoke to find Wedl’s hand on the back of her leg, near her buttock. She removed his hand and fell back asleep. The second time, Dowling awoke to find Wedl rubbing her thigh, grabbing her butt and attempting to reach into her pants. She cried “Stop,” and he withdrew his hand from her body. She asked him what he was doing, but he simply leered back at her. The third time, Dowling awoke to Wedl, an off-duty pilot with FedEx, running his hand up her thigh and forcing his hand between Dowling’s body and her own hand and “firmly began rubbing her vagina through her clothes while rapidly masturbating underneath his blanket.” According to the lawsuit, Dowling “shot out of her seat in shock when she realized what was happening,” and told Wedl to stop. In response, Wedl told Dowling, “I think you’re horny, and I’m horny too.”

Dowling found a flight attendant and asked to switch seats, but was told that there were no empty seats available and that she should talk it out with Wedl. Frustrated with the response, Dowling then found the head flight attendant and received permission to switch to another seat, 8G. According to Dowling, the purser also said, “This is not okay, but I’m not shocked.”

According to documents filed with the US District Court of Colorado, Dowling was originally seated in seat 8D while Wedl was seated in seat 8C. Although the lawsuit does not state the specific flight number, the route most likely was UA Flight 862, flown at the time on United’s Boeing 747-400s.

After the flight landed, Wedl approached Dowling as she was leaving the plane to ask why she had moved seats, to which Dowling replied that it was because he had sexually assaulted her.

Dowling reported the assault to United Airlines, the San Francisco Police Department and to the Federal Bureau of Investigation on July 10, 2016, the day after the incident. Dowling also filed a criminal assault complaint against Wedl on December 5, 2016, but Wedl was acquitted in the US District Court for the Northern District of California on June 8, 2017. FedEx stated that Wedl no longer works for the company after the allegations were reported.

The Dowling vs. United Airlines lawsuit states that, “as a common carrier, United and/or its employees owed its passengers, including Dowling, the duty to exercise the highest degree of care. Such duty included, but was not limited to, preventing and protecting Dowling from sexual assaults committed by other passengers.” As a result of Wedl’s assault, the lawsuit further states, “Dowling suffered physical pain and suffering, shock, emotional distress, embarrassment, mortification, anxiety, anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of past and future income, loss of past and future medical expenses, and further injuries and damages” as a result of Wedl’s actions, which were exacerbated by the response from the United Airlines flight attendant who instructed Dowling to return to the seat next to her assailant.

Dowling is seeking damages upward of $75,000 — the minimum for a federal courts claim of this nature.

United Airlines has told media outlets that it cannot comment on a current case pending litigation, but has stated that “safety is the airline’s top priority.” According to a statement from United spokeswoman Erin Benson, “We’re always looking for more we can do to ensure the safety and security of the hundreds of thousands of people who fly United every day.”

This is the the latest case in a series of highly publicized sexual assault cases that are increasingly rampant mid-air, according to the FBI, which reported in June 2018 that in-flight sexual misconduct has increased “at an alarming rate” of 66% between 2014 to 2017. The FBI opened 63 in-flight assault investigations in 2017, up from 57 cases in 2016, 40 in 2015 and 38 in 2014, while a number of airports across the nation have each reported 10 or more assaults in 2018 to date. The FBI says that the number of assaults that go unreported is far higher.

Dowling joins the ranks of passengers who increasingly are holding airlines accountable for inadequate responses to onboard harassment and assault. Delta passenger Allison Dvaladze sued the airline earlier this year for its “tepid response” to her seatmate’s repeatedly assaults during an international flight in 2016. Another Delta passenger also sued the carrier in 2017, stating that when she reported a passenger who had repeatedly groped her, a flight attendant refused to intervene because the man held elite status with the airline.

United Airlines has found itself tangled up in a number of high-profile lawsuits in recent months, following the notorious #Bumpgate incident in April 2017 where a doctor was physically dragged off of a plane, as well as the March 2018 death of a dog that was placed into an overhead bin after a flight attendant insisted.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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