Mom sues Southwest Airlines, saying she was accused of trafficking biracial daughter

Mary MacCarthy says she and her child were questioned by police after a flight.

ByArmando Garcia and Katie Kindelan ABCNews logo
Tuesday, August 8, 2023
LA mom accused of trafficking biracial daughter sues Southwest
A Los Angeles mother is suing Southwest Airlines for racial discrimination, saying she was accused of human trafficking when traveling with her biracial child.

LOS ANGELES -- A white mother who says she was accused of trafficking her biracial daughter has filed a federal lawsuit against Southwest Airlines alleging she and her daughter were victims of "blatant racism" by airline employees.

According to the lawsuit, filed Aug. 3 in the District Court of Colorado, Mary MacCarthy and her then 10-year-old daughter traveled on a Southwest flight from San Jose to Denver in October 2021, following the sudden death of MacCarthy's brother.

When they arrived at Denver International Airport, MacCarthy and her daughter were met by police officers, according to the lawsuit.

"The officers began questioning Ms. MacCarthy and made it clear that they were given the racially charged information that Ms. MacCarthy's daughter was possibly being trafficked by her simply because Ms. MacCarthy is white and her daughter is Black," the lawsuit states. "After significant questioning, during which Ms. MacCarthy's daughter began to break down in tears, Ms. MacCarthy was eventually allowed to leave by the officers, but not before this display of blatant racism by Southwest Airlines caused Ms. MacCarthy and her daughter extreme emotional distress."

MacCarthy told ABC News that when they boarded the flight to Denver, she asked to sit with her daughter and passengers on the flight moved to give them the opportunity to do so.

RELATED: LA mother says she was accused of trafficking her biracial daughter

A Los Angeles mother is accusing Southwest Airlines of racial profiling, saying she was accused of human trafficking while traveling with her biracial daughter.

She described the flight to Denver as "uneventful," until she and her daughter disembarked the plane and were greeted by what she described as "armed police officers who knew our names."

"Once they said, 'We're here because you were reported for suspicious behavior,' an alarm bell went off in my head because I'm a mother of a biracial child. I'm aware of racial profiling. I'm aware that the word 'suspicious' is sometimes code for race," MacCarthy said. "That's when I kind of switched into being, you know, this grieving mother to a mother who's there to protect her child and herself from these accusations."

MacCarthy used her cell phone to record her interaction with the police officers.

MacCarthy and her lawyer also provided a police bodycam video to ABC News that they said was obtained through an open records request. In the bodycam video, a Southwest Airlines employee is seen telling MacCarthy that flight attendants on the flight from San Jose to Denver reported noticing "suspicious behavior."

Mary MacCarthy, of California, poses with her daughter.
Courtesty Mary MacCarthy

According to MacCarthy's lawsuit, she and her daughter were allowed to leave the airport only after MacCarthy "explained why she was traveling and gave her identification."

The lawsuit alleges that a Southwest employee called the Denver Police Department while the flight was in the air to report MacCarthy for "suspected child trafficking."

Southwest Airlines is also accused in the lawsuit of a January 2021 incident in which a white male passenger traveling with his Black daughter was "pulled ... off of a plane for questioning."

The lawsuit alleges that Southwest has not taken steps to "correct the racist assumptions ... its employees make about mixed-race families traveling together."

Southwest Airlines declined to comment on pending litigation.

MacCarthy said she brought the lawsuit in hopes of getting "accountability" from Southwest Airlines, including a change in how they train their flight attendants.

She also said she is doing so on behalf of other parents who have faced similar situations, but may not have the "wherewithal or the means" to take legal action, saying, "If I can use my voice to make life a little bit easier for parents of color or children of color, even if it makes one person's life easier, I'm going to do it.

MacCarthy said her daughter does not talk about the incident to this day.

"She is growing into a young woman who speaks out on all sorts of issues herself, but when it comes to talking about what happened that day, she clams up," MacCarthy said. "It was probably like the worst day of her life because of what was going on with my brother's death. It's not something that she in any way wants to revisit."