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Two NFL players sue United Airlines, alleging they were sexually assaulted on a flight

United Airlines protective barriers. (Courtesy of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport)

Two NFL players are suing United Airlines, alleging that flight attendants were slow to respond to complaints about a female passenger who allegedly groped them repeatedly and made rude comments aboard a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Newark, in February.

The men are identified only as John Doe 1 and 2 in the suit, which was filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

“We bring this lawsuit with the hope that it will be one of the last of its kind,” the players said in a statement by their lawyers, Darren D. Darwish and Benjamin A. Azizian. “Our wish would be that in the future, no passengers’ multiple warnings and complaints to flight attendants, the onboard authority figures, will go unheeded until it’s too late and the damage has been done.”

United Airlines did not respond to requests for comment.

According to the lawsuit, the men were seated in the middle and window seats of row 39 when the woman boarded the plane. One of the men helped her stow her luggage, and she took her seat by the window. The woman, described as middle-aged and white, appeared “disheveled and unbalanced,” the lawsuit says.

Once seated, the lawsuit says, the woman began harassing the player sitting next to her in the middle seat because he was wearing a mask. The woman then allegedly began hitting his arm and elbowing him.

She then “accosted John Doe 1 and told him that he was ‘frightening,’ ordered him to move to the front of the plane and use the air there because he was sick, and questioned why John Doe 1 had a mask on,” according to the suit. “John Doe 1 respectfully responded that he was not sick and was being proactive, especially in wake of the growing covid-19 concerns at that time.”

Alarmed by the woman’s behavior, John Doe 2, who was sitting in the aisle seat, reported her behavior to a flight attendant, who said he would check on the situation. However, the suit alleges, the flight attendant never did.

The suit alleges that the woman’s behavior escalated and she began groping and massaging John Doe 1′s knees and thighs.

“Fearful of the perception of being a male victim and the racial stigma of being a young African American male, John Doe 1 patiently pleaded for assailant to stop and removed her hand,” the suit says. John Doe 2 again reported the woman to the flight attendant. The flight attendant again did not respond, the suit alleges.

The woman’s behavior escalated, according to the lawsuit, until at one point she allegedly grabbed John Doe 1′s penis and ripped off his mask. John Doe 1 then jumped up from his seat and said out loud that the woman was touching him. He then left his seat to seek help. At that point, the suit alleges, the woman moved to the middle seat and began harassing John Doe 2, grabbing his leg and groin area, according to the suit. John Doe 1 then returned with a flight attendant, and the woman was moved to another seat. The woman eventually was moved a second time during the flight to a row where there were no other passengers.

According to the suit, the woman said she was drinking and taking pills.

The suit notes that in-flight sexual assaults have been a growing problem aboard commercial flights and that the FBI has issued strict warnings to airlines about the dramatic increase in incidents.

“United has an obligation to keep its passengers safe,” the men said in their statement. “This matter is about accountability; not just from United, but the assailant as well.”

The men are seeking unspecified damages and a jury trial.

“Our goal is to shine a light on how assaults can, and are, being made on men, and not just women,” they said. “This is significant, because assault is assault, regardless of the gender, race and physical attributes of the victim. Once these characteristics are added into the equation, the usual stigma and social stereotypes associated with sexual assaults are amplified.”