A Pennsylvania federal judge has given the go-ahead to a civil sexual assault lawsuit filed against American Airlines, Law360 reports, rejecting the company’s request to have the case dismissed.

Sexual Assault Takes Flight

In his July 26, 2017 opinion, US District Judge Gene Pratter wrote that a female American Airlines worker will be allowed to proceed with allegations that her employer was negligent in supervising one of her co-workers, a man who had previously assaulted her at her home. Despite his past conduct, the man allegedly assaulted her on a second occasion, this time in a break room at her workplace. The woman claims to have been granted an order that, if enforced, would have prevented the offender from interacting with her at their place of employment.

Airplane Wing

Negligent supervision, a legal theory often used in civil assault cases, holds that employers have a duty to exert reasonable control over their employers, where failing to do so would lead to personal injury or property damage. In practice, most courts have found that, when it’s possible to reasonably predict that a certain form of wrongdoing would be committed, employers have a legal obligation to take steps in preventing those injuries.

Screening Out Potential Offenders

These cases often come down to an employee’s past history of criminal activity or civil sanction. A youth organization, for example, would do well to avoid hiring people with a history of abusing children. We can foresee (reasonably predict) the risks posed by a failure to adequately screen out inappropriate employees, or a failure to properly monitor their workplace activities. While it’s patently false, says Scientific American, that all sexual offenders will go on to commit more sex crimes, a large proportion will. After a 15-year research period, for example, public safety experts at the organization Public Safety Canada found that nearly 25% of rapists go on to victimize more people.

Prevention & Response

For many employers, these facts impose certain obligations. As a matter of common sense, companies should be careful about who they hire, conducting criminal background checks in sensitive industries (like childcare and massage) where sexual assault is relatively common. After hiring, employers should also put reasonable policies in place to reduce the likelihood of further criminal activity, placing security cameras and guards where necessary.

The response to sex crimes is just as important. Employers cannot, in every instance, control how their employees or customers will act, but they certainly exert control over their own reactions. All employers, especially those in industries to which sex offenders are attracted, should have clear procedures for responding to assaults, both during and after their commission. Reporting and following-up on allegations of assault or abuse is crucial. The police, obviously, should be notified immediately and cooperated with throughout their investigation.

Airlines Don’t Know How To Deal With Sex Crimes

Many recent reports of sex assault on international and domestic flights, though, suggest that some airlines haven’t processed what we would say are commonsense measures to reduce an abhorrent form of criminal activity. An article from Conde Nast Traveler describes the case of one woman who was groped by a male passenger during a nine-hour Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam. She struggled, slapping the man’s hand away and was finally able to remove her seatbelt and run to a flight attendant. Here’s where the story becomes truly troubling.

Her report of assault was met, not by concerted action, but blank stares. One flight attendant turned to her and said, “what do you think we should do about it?” Another, after she had been moved to a new seat, opined, “Sometimes, you just have to let these things roll off your back.”

Even more recently, another woman, Chloe King, came forward to describe the disturbing experience she had on a transatlantic flight to Paris. King chose to take a nap and, when she woke up, was asked to join a flight attendant in the back of the plane. The flight attendant informed King that, while she had been sleeping, her seat-mate had begun masturbating. The flight crew, though, didn’t wake King up. Nor did they honor her request for a new seat.

Instead, she was forced to “climb back over the sex offender, trapped between him and the window for the rest of the flight.” When she’d landed, King went straight to the airline’s help desk, but was “met with blank stares.” Her messages to the airline’s legal team went unanswered for weeks.

Jurisdiction In The Sky

Who’s responsible for investigating and prosecuting these apparent crimes? It’s complicated.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has jurisdiction over crimes committed on planes, at least those flying through domestic airspace. In an ideal world, sexual assaults on domestic flights would be reported to the federal government, but often, flight crews inform local or state authorities instead. Crimes committed on international flights are generally referred to authorities in the destination country. That’s how Chloe King’s assault was eventually handled. The man masturbating beside her sleeping body was ultimately handed over to the Paris police for questioning.

Flight Attendants Need Training, Airlines Hesitate

Responsibilities in the air, however, are somewhat unclear, especially where airlines are concerned. Reporting from Matthew Halverson, a writer for Conde Naste, suggests that many airlines may not even have policies that instruct flight attendants how to handle sex assault reports. Sara Nelson, president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, describes a disturbing lack of guidance. Airlines, Nelson says, are generally unwilling to tackle “unpleasant” issues. No one wants to be seen as “the sexual assault airline.”

That’s left the union to pick up the slack. The Association of Flight Attendants fields sex assault-related calls from its members all the time, but the organization’s efforts to convince airlines to provide training has met only with resistance, according to Nelson. So the union set up its own training program, until, that is, the election of President Trump, when sex assault response training was quickly suspended.