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'Belittled and harassed' over child seating: Mother wins lawsuit against American Airlines

A mother won a small claims settlement of 4,500 miles and $3,500 in damages against American Airlines on Oct. 27 for "breach of contract" and "negligent infliction of emotional distress" after she said a flight attendant harassed her over the seating of her twin infants during a flight.

Erika Hamilton, a lawyer from Oregon, was on a February flight with her 18-month-old twin daughters from Portland to Tallahassee, Florida, with a layover in Dallas, according to a copy of the complaint filed to the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon for the County of Multnomah.

In the complaint, Hamilton wrote how she purchased tickets for one daughter to sit in her lap and the other in a seat – which followed American Airlines' policy at the time.

Infants under the age of 2 "must either travel in a safety seat approved by the Federal Aviation Administration or be able to sit upright in their seat without assistance and have their seatbelt securely fastened during taxi, takeoff, landing and whenever the 'fasten seat belt' sign is on."

The mother ended up being "belittled and harassed" by a flight attendant, Hamilton told USA TODAY via email, "when I was doing something that is absolutely allowed and that is already just really hard – flying alone with two kids under the age of two."

"American strives to provide a positive and welcoming experience to everyone who travels with us while ensuring their safety and comfort while in our care," American Airlines told USA TODAY on Wednesday. "We are in touch with Ms. Hamilton and will be refunding 4,500 miles for the ticket in question."

Hamilton said she used 9,000 miles and paid $5.90 for the tickets for her and one of her daughters. (At the time, the airline's policy stated that an infant in a separate seat needs their own ticket.) American ended up refunding the full 9,000 miles.

The complaint states the first flight went smoothly, but the layover flight is when the conflict occurred.

Upon boarding, a flight attendant allegedly "approached me to question whether my seating configuration was safe for my children," the complaint said.

The flight attendant continued to tell Hamilton it was against FAA and airline policy for one daughter to fly without a car seat, and Hamilton tried to refute that by pulling up the rules.

The woman seated behind Hamilton offered to hold one of the twins, which Hamilton felt was the only option.

"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, than to be a lap child in the care of a stranger," she wrote in the complaint.

Midway through the flight, the flight attendant reportedly apologized to Hamilton.

Hamilton said she filed a report with the airline on Feb. 8, and the flight attendant also filed her own. In the report, the flight attendant said she saw Hamilton having "difficulty" handling her twins and felt "concerned" over the safety of the children.

Hamilton claims the bulk of the flight attendant's report is "inaccurate."

Hamilton reached out to the airline for a refund but was only offered a $75 voucher, so she turned to small claims court. She filed a lawsuit in April seeking $3,500 in damages.

"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 said. "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."

Hamilton said it felt "important to stand up to" big companies that feel like they can get away with "things like that." She pointed out how, instead of just refunding her the flight, 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."

During the trial, two other passengers also testified that the flight attendant was "categorically false."

American Airlines filed a Motion for Summary Judgment saying Hamilton "cannot meet each of the substantive elements of her claims," according to an excerpt published by TheStreet.

The airline also said crew members can deny people the right to fly "for any reason," which doesn't breach any contract.

This article originally appeared on USA Today.

Photo: Courtesy of Erika Hamilton

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