Fired WestJet employee accuses pilot of sexual assault, files suit
Alleged incident occurred during Hawaii stopover in 2010
By Jeff Cottrill
Health & Safety
(Canadian OH&S News) — A former WestJet flight attendant has filed a civil lawsuit against the airline for wrongful dismissal and other damages, claiming that a pilot sexually assaulted her at a Hawaii layover more than six years ago — and that WestJet did not investigate her allegation seriously.
Mandalena Lewis, who lives in Vancouver, has also stated that the accused assailant — identified only as “Pilot M” — had assaulted another flight attendant in Alberta about 15 months before the Hawaii incident, according to court documents obtained by COHSN. A 15-page statement of claim, which Lewis filed with the Supreme Court of British Columbia on March 1, alleged that Pilot M had not been fired or disciplined for either incident.
“Pilot M was allowed to remain in his supervisory role,” the claim read, “presenting a continued and unacceptable risk of harm to women with whom he worked, including [Lewis].”
The assault against Lewis allegedly occurred at the Makena Beach Resort hotel in Maui, where a flight crew including her and Pilot M was staying during a stopover on the evening of Jan. 24, 2010, the statement of claim noted. Lewis accepted an invitation to Pilot M’s suite for drinks on the balcony, and they engaged in conversation. After referencing a sexual scenario, the pilot attempted to “play-wrestle” with Lewis, eventually groping her and attempting to kiss her, the claim added.
“At no time did [Lewis] indicate she wanted to engage in sexual activity with Pilot M,” the claim stated about the incident. The following day, he allegedly approached her and “asked her not to tell anyone about what happened the night before.”
Lewis reported the assault to the RCMP, her manager at WestJet and the Flight Attendants Association Board for the airline after returning to Vancouver later that month. But instead of conducting a proper investigation, the claim said, the airline stopped scheduling her on the same flights as Pilot M, thereby limiting her work hours, and asked her to sign an agreement that she would not speak about the incident to anyone else, out of the pilot’s privacy. Lewis refused to sign it.
“[Lewis’] trust in WestJet was seriously undermined as a result of its response,” the claim continued. “The implicit, but clear, message from WestJet was that while they believed she was assaulted… WestJet was not prepared to discipline or terminate Pilot M.”
WestJet fired Lewis without prior warning on Jan. 12 of this year, claiming “insubordination” and “disrespectful conduct toward leadership” as the causes.
Among the personal damages that Lewis claims to have suffered in the suit: physical, emotional and psychological harm; aggravation of the harm due to WestJet’s inadequate response to her allegation; depression; and loss of potential earnings.
An e-mailed statement from WestJet said that the airline would not comment on the specifics about the allegations or lawsuit, but that it would file a statement of defence.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” the airline stated. “We are committed to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace environment and encourage our employees to report any behaviour that may violate our policies.”
The case has spurred an online petition from consumer and worker organization Sum of Us, demanding that WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky resign and that the airline investigate all charges of sexual assault.
“Women shouldn’t face harassment of any kind at their respective workplaces. Not at this company. Not at any company. And WestJet should know better,” the petition read. “We need to set a precedent that harassment and abuse are never acceptable.”
As of March 7, the petition had accumulated more than 17,000 signatures, with a goal of 20,000.
On March 4, Saretsky responded to the allegations with an online public statement.
“Investigations did take place on these matters, and they were subsequently closed,” said Saretsky. “We are reviewing the investigations to ensure they were diligently carried out, and no new information has come to light since the investigations were undertaken six years ago.
“Allegations are a serious concern… We are acting in accordance with our code of conduct and ethics, and if new information comes out, we will thoroughly investigate the matter.”
Since Lewis filed her lawsuit claim on March 1, seven more women have come forward publicly with allegations of sexual assault or harassment while working for WestJet, according to media reports.
“The company has received no further information at this time,” Saretsky said about the additional accusations.