Expect one or more lawsuits to be filed against American Airlines perhaps as early as this week, in the still-difficult-to-comprehend case of a flight attendant taking videos of young female passengers using the airplane bathroom.
In addition to 36-year-old flight attendant Estes Carter Thompson III who faces federal criminal charges, American has already been sued civilly for failing to prevent his sordid behavior in September 2023, even though it had received complaints about Thompson.
“American Airlines employees had complained,” about the flight attendant’s “inappropriate, sexual conduct prior to his filming of Plaintiff,” according to the complaint filed by Paul Llewellyn, a San Francisco attorney. Llewellyn represents the family identified with the pseudonyms, Jane Doe and her parents Jane and John Roe.
On January 18th, Thompson was criminally charged with secretly videotaping Jane Doe using the bathroom. He was also charged with possessing videos of four other young women in similar circumstances.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, Thompson recorded the 14-year-old Doe in the bathroom on a flight from Charlotte to Boston last fall. He had directed the teen away from the bathroom in coach, walking her to the front of the plane to use the first-class bathroom. He went in before her, telling her he needed to wash his hands.
During that time it appears he was taping his cell phone to the toilet lid and concealing it with maintenance tape.
The unsuspecting Doe did not notice the camera until after using the toilet, but the quick-thinking teen snapped a photo of the bizarre setup and immediately showed it to her mother. Both Jane and John Roe then sprang into action.
The mother went up to first-class section and warned a woman entering the bathroom about what had happened to her daughter, according to the family’s civil lawsuit. By that time, however, the camera and the tape were no longer on the toilet seat. So the mother told her daughter’s story to the first-class flight attendant and was assured the captain would be informed.
Shortly after that, John Roe headed to the back of the plane where he saw all four members of the cabin crew, including Thompson having a discussion.
“What the hell happened in the first-class bathroom with my daughter?” he asked, according to the suit. He showed the toilet photo to the group and then demanded that Thompson give him his cell phone. At that point, Thompson walked away. The remaining three continued to talk to the father and discuss the photo. Only then did Roe see Thompson in the front of the plane “tapping furiously on his phone.”
Llewellyn’s suit, filed in Charlotte, North Carolina says the cabin crew and the flight crew ought to have immediately secured Thompson’s phone but they did not.
“During the approximately one-hour remaining portion of the flight, the male flight attendant had complete, unfettered access to his phone.” Llewellyn claims the airline’s failure to act prevented the FBI from arresting Thompson immediately. He was allowed to leave, Llewellyn said, because by the time law enforcement got access to the phone, “they could not find any incriminating photo or video on it.”
Worse, Llewellyn claims the airline’s neglect could have “given him the opportunity to disseminate any photo or video he took” of the child.
That would be even more likely of the videos the FBI did find on Thompson’s iCloud account. Announcing Thompson’s arrest and detention 4-months after the Doe incident, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston said it had evidence he taped four girls 7, 9, 11 and 14 between January and August of 2023. It also found photos of a 9-year-old girl traveling as an unaccompanied minor on an American flight. The families of these children were notified by the FBI.
The Doe lawsuit claims that in addition to complaints from his co-workers, American was also aware that Thompson had been stopped by U.S. Customs for possession of inappropriate material and / or for inappropriate sexual conduct before the Jane Doe filming in September.
Whether the company did or didn’t take complaints against Thompson seriously in 2023, it is taking them seriously now. In a statement following the filing of the Doe suit in December, the airline said, it was “fully cooperating with law enforcement in their investigation, as safety and security are our highest priorities.”
The impact of all this on 14-year-old Jane Doe appears to be less of a priority, at least as described to me by her lawyer. “They didn’t reach out once, not to say, ‘How is she doing? What can we do to help?’ To this day they haven’t.”
When bad things happen, companies often withhold comment or hesitate to apologize for fear of the legal consequences. I’m no lawyer but in a case as disturbing as this one failing to respond is almost as unfathomable as the act itself.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.