American Airlines is facing significant public and legal backlash after initially blaming a 9-year-old girl for using an airplane bathroom where a hidden camera had been planted by a flight attendant. The airline's controversial legal defense came in response to a civil lawsuit filed by the girl's family. The former flight attendant, Estes Carter Thompson III, 37, has been charged with multiple counts of sexual exploitation of children.

The incident, which occurred during a January 2023 flight from Austin to Los Angeles, involved Thompson allegedly placing a recording device in the airplane's lavatory. The device captured explicit images of several minors, including the 9-year-old plaintiff, referred to as Mary Doe in court documents. Federal prosecutors have accused Thompson of filming multiple girls aged between 7 and 14 over a seven-month period last year.

In a shocking move, American Airlines' legal team initially argued that the child was responsible for her own victimization. "Any injuries or illnesses alleged to have been sustained by plaintiff, Mary Doe, were proximately caused by plaintiff's own fault and negligence," the airline's lawyers stated. This defense infuriated the girl's family and their attorney, Paul Llewellyn. "I cannot even envision a world where it is appropriate to point to a 9-year-old and say, 'It's not our fault. This is your fault. You should have known that you were being filmed,'" Llewellyn told Fox News Digital.

The legal strategy was met with widespread outrage and intense public scrutiny. Following the backlash, American Airlines issued a public statement distancing itself from the defense. "Our outside legal counsel retained with our insurance company made an error in this filing," the airline said. "The included defense is not representative of our airline, and we have directed it be amended this morning. We do not believe this child is at fault, and we take the allegations involving a former team member very seriously."

Despite this retraction, Llewellyn emphasized that the initial defense had already caused further harm to the victim. "The bell cannot be unrung," he said. The family has described the incident and the airline's response as deeply traumatic, noting that the young girl has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares since learning of the hidden camera.

Thompson, who was immediately removed from service and has not worked for the airline since the discovery of the device, faces serious federal charges, including attempted sexual exploitation of children and possession of child pornography. If convicted, he could face up to 30 years in prison for each count of attempted sexual exploitation and up to 20 years for possession of child pornography. Additionally, he faces at least five years of supervised release and fines up to $250,000.

The federal criminal case against Thompson primarily focuses on the 14-year-old girl who discovered the hidden camera. According to the indictment, this teenager has also experienced severe emotional distress, including heightened anxiety and a fear of being in public alone. Her parents have filed a separate complaint against American Airlines in North Carolina, alleging that the airline's failure to immediately confiscate Thompson's phone and notify the pilots allowed him to destroy evidence.

In response to the public outcry, American Airlines reiterated its commitment to passenger safety and security. "Our core mission is to care for people - and the foundation of that is the safety and security of our customers and team," the airline's statement read. However, the damage to the airline's reputation appears significant, as public sentiment remains critical of its initial legal response.