Portland, OR – An Oregon mother was awarded a $3,500 settlement in small claims court last Friday after suing American Airlines for “breach of contract” and “negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
Erika Hamilton, a lawyer, claimed an American Airlines flight attendant harassed and belittled her over the seating of her twin infants on a February flight from Portland to Florida.
According to court documents, Hamilton was flying with her 18-month-old daughters from Portland to Tallahassee, Florida, with a layover in Dallas. She had purchased a ticket for one daughter to sit in her lap and the other in a seat, following American’s policy for infants under 2 years old.
The policy states that infants must either be in an FAA-approved safety seat or be able to sit upright without assistance with their seatbelt fastened during all phases of the flight.
Hamilton claims the first leg of the trip went smoothly. However, during the layover flight a flight attendant “approached me to question whether my seating configuration was safe for my children,” despite it following the airline’s own policy.
The attendant insisted having one daughter without a safety seat was against FAA and airline regulations. Hamilton showed the attendant the airline policy on her phone, but the flight attendant continued to insist she was violating the rules.
After arguing over the policy, the woman seated behind Hamilton offered to hold one infant so both could be accommodated. Hamilton agreed, even though she felt this placed her child at risk.
“By doing so, American Airlines placed the safety of my child at risk, given it is much safer for my child to be seated in her seat, with the safety belt fastened, then to be a lap child in the care of a stranger,” Hamilton wrote in her complaint.
The flight attendant apologized to Hamilton mid-flight. After landing, Hamilton filed a complaint with American Airlines on February 8 detailing the incident. The flight attendant also filed a report giving her perspective, claiming she saw Hamilton struggling with the infants and was concerned for their safety.
Hamilton disputes the accuracy of the flight attendant’s account. She sought compensation from American Airlines but was only offered a $75 travel voucher. Feeling she had no other options for remedy, she turned to small claims court in April.
In her lawsuit, Hamilton sought $3,500 for damages from American Airlines for breach of contract and emotional distress resulting from the flight attendant’s actions. She claimed that by preventing her from using the ticket she paid for, American Airlines breached their own contractual policies regarding infants.
“I took the case to court because I think a big problem with corporate America is that there is very little remedy for the ‘little guy’ when a corporation essentially steals from you,” Hamilton told USA Today.
“What happened here was that American Airlines sold me a ticket, and then refused to let me use that ticket because they did not know or understand the terms and conditions of their own contract.”
American Airlines filed for a summary judgment, claiming Hamilton could not prove the elements of her claims and that crew can deny boarding “for any reason.”
During the small claims trial, two other passengers testified that the flight attendant’s account was inaccurate. After considering the evidence and testimonies, the judge ruled in favor of Hamilton, awarding her $3,500 in damages.
American Airlines Reaction
USA Today reached out to American Airlines for comment on the lawsuit and trial outcome but did not receive a response. The airline chose to take the case to trial despite the potential high legal costs compared to Hamilton’s relatively small claim amount.
Hamilton said she felt it was important to hold the airline accountable: “It felt important to stand up to a big company that feels like it can get away with things like that.” She added that American Airlines “chose to take this all the way through a trial, after hiring a private attorney, and doing so must have cost them in the tens of thousands of dollars.”
While Hamilton succeeded in her small claims action, the experience left her rattled and concerned over how passengers with disabilities or special needs are treated on flights.
“I cannot imagine what it must be like for families with special needs children to fly,” she said. “If this is how Airlines treat someone doing something completely acceptable, I can only imagine the horrors that special needs families endure.”
Hamilton hopes the case makes airlines more aware of their own policies regarding infants and children. The FAA may also want to review airline training and procedures regarding passengers with special needs.
While air travel can be stressful for all involved, understanding policies, showing compassion, and taking the time to listen can go a long way. Hamilton’s court victory sends a message to airlines that customer experiences matter.