A Houston-area couple is suing United Airlines, saying one of their infant twins died en route to meeting her grandparents in 2019 because the airline refused to let the family buckle the babies into car seats for the 11-hour flight to Japan. The same couple has been charged in a gruesome child abuse case in New Hampshire alleging the man intentionally immersed the hand of his 3-year-old stepdaughter in boiling water.
Shogo and Sara Hanamura, who live in Harris County, are seeking $40 million in damages. They say the airline is liable for the death of their child under an international convention because it failed to heed Federal Aviation Administration regulations, failed to train its employees and failed to uphold its own policy on car seat use.
Leslie Scott, a spokesperson for the company, noted that the couple previously sued United in state court in Illinois, where United has its headquarters. That lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed by the family more than a year ago, but they can refile it.
“United expresses deep sorrow for the family, but believes this matter is without merit,” Scott said.
Three months after their baby’s death on the flight, the Hanamuras were indicted in Manchester, N.H., on 36 criminal charges including multiple counts each of endangering a child, assault with a deadly weapon, reckless conduct and witness tampering. The allegations were that Shogo, the stepfather of a 3-year-old girl, intentionally immersed her hand in water and the girl’s mother, Sara, told two other siblings not to report it to anyone. Several of the charges have been dropped by the prosecution, and the case is pending.
Before that, on May 28, 2019, the couple left on what they expected would be a joyful journey to introduce their newborn twins to their grandparents overseas. They departed from Newark with the 3-month-old infants and made a plane change in San Francisco, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week.
Their pediatrician said the kids could travel once they’d reached 10 pounds — which they had by that time. United informed the Hanamuras they could use the car seats on the flight as long as there were empty seats.
While boarding the second flight in California, United staff told them they would have to check the FAA approved car seats even though the couple could see there were plenty of empty seats, according to the suit.
A flight attendant told them they could buckle in the twins using a lap belt if they needed to put them down at any point. The husband and wife took turns sleeping.
While the babies’ mother was asleep in an empty row behind them, their father was bottle feeding the boy and buckled the girl beside him using the seat belt. About 15 minutes after he buckled her in, the suit says, the girl stopped moving. The husband handed the baby to his wife, who determined she was not breathing. The mother quickly sought oxygen from the flight attendants at the back of the cabin, documents say.
The child died from lack of oxygen, the lawsuit says.
Approved car seats protect babies’ head, neck and spine by seating them facing the seat back in a reclined position with a five point harness. American Academy of Pediatrics say positional asphyxia can occur secured during travel because young infants cannot hold their heads upright. If a baby’s head slumps forward, it constricts the airway and oxygen intake decreases.
The father’s child abuse case is set for trial Dec. 1. The mother’s lawyer withdrew from the case last June and her trial is pending.
The New Hampshire Union Leader reported in 2019 that physicians alerted Manchester police when one of the girl’s parents took her to a Boston hospital for treatment. The girl was not verbal, but other relatives said they saw the assault and spoke with officials, the article said. The 3-year-old girl and several siblings no longer live with their stepfather and mother.