Virgin America recently tried to escape liability for the sexual assault by one of its directors on a woman at a networking conference. Not on plaintiff’s attorney Lori Andrus’ watch. Andrus proved that the assault case should continue, beating the companies’ motion to dismiss it.
Virgin’s former Director of Loyalty, Stuart Dinnis, sexually assaulted “Jane Doe” after a party related to the Mega Loyalty Conference in Toronto, Canada. Dinnis, who was said to have been excessively drunk at the time, followed Doe into an elevator and began to “aggressively kiss her and would not stop,” according to the complaint. When the elevator stopped at his floor, he tried to physically pull Doe from the elevator by her neck and hair. She resisted, and Dinnis then followed Doe off the elevator to her floor. He then grabbed her by the neck and tried to follow her into her hotel room. After Doe fought off Dinnis and yelled out several times, he finally walked away, leaving Doe “shaking and terrified.” His assault continued through text messages to follow.
Since the assault, Doe has left her job as Vice President of Research Now, which required her to travel alone often. In April, she filed a complaint against Virgin, Alaska, and Dinnis.
At the time of the assault, Virgin had knowledge of Dinnis previously carrying out lewd and drunken behavior in front of other employees. He sexually assaulted business associates on a number of other occasions — with witnesses present — and still the company did nothing to stop his behavior. Virgin argued that his assault against Doe was “outside the scope of employment” and moved to dismiss the case.
United States Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu disagreed with the argument and the companies’ motion. She ruled that Doe and Andrus, her attorney, sufficiently alleged that the assault was, in fact, “incidental” to his employment. She noted that Virgin should have been aware of the imbalance of professional power between Dinnis, a company exec, and Doe, who was expected to network with him during the conference.
It’s difficult to overstate how intimidating a behemoth company like Virgin America can be when you’re on the other side of the courtroom. Although the lawsuit is ongoing, this victory for Doe and Andrus is no small matter. Judge Ryu’s ruling sets an important precedent for victims of sexual assault and lawyers who represent them. When a company is aware of an employee’s dangerous, repeated, and/or unlawful behavior toward others (not just coworkers), it can be held liable if it does not take immediate action to stop it.
One fact that has become very clear from the #MeToo movement is that taking action against an aggressor isn’t an easy feat — let alone winning a lawsuit against one. The more we amplify the wins of victims against their abusers, the more we can hope to help others come forward to seek their own justice.
A West Point graduate where he served as captain and military aviator, John Bair continues his commitment to our country through his efforts within the settlement planning industry. He has represented families of victims lost in the Flight 3407 crash, offered pro bono services to the families of 9/11 victims and drafted the first consumer protection bill for plaintiffs (H.R. 3699).