Alaska Airlines Loses $3.19 Million Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Filed Under: Alaska

Alaska Airlines has been deemed “90% responsible” for a 2017 incident at Portland Airport that caused a death, and the airline will now have to pay $3.19 million.

2017 Portland Airport wheelchair accident details

In June 2017, 75-year-old disabled amputee Bernice Kekona was connecting in Portland, using her own electric wheelchair. She was coming from Hawaii, and traveling onwards to her home in Spokane. This is where a miscommunication occurred that ultimately led to her death.

Kekona’s family says she was supposed to have an escort to her next gate, but there was some kind of miscommunication between Alaska Airlines and its contractor.

She ended up traveling through the airport unaccompanied, and fell 21 steps down an escalator in her wheelchair (you can see the security footage of the fall here — I won’t even embed it, since it will be disturbing to many). It’s stated that she got confused and thought she was getting in an elevator, rather than on an escalator.

Kekona suffered head and chest injuries, along with an infection from an Achilles tendon injury. Her remaining leg was amputated in an effort to save her, but she ended up passing away about three months later.

As you’d expect, there’s disagreement about how exactly this was able to happen:

  • Alaska Airlines stated that Kekona had received initial assistance, but declined additional help while navigating through Portland Airport
  • Kekona’s family stated that they had requested gate-to-gate service for her, and that’s what should have been provided; the family claimed she was provided help to the top of the jet bridge, but was then left alone
  • The family claims Kekona became confused, while Alaska Airlines points out that in her reservation, none of the boxes were checked for “other special needs,” so there was no indication she had cognitive, visual, or auditory impairments

Alaska Airlines found 90% responsible, forced to pay

Kekona’s family had filed a wrongful death suit against Alaska Airlines over this incident, and over three years after the incident, a verdict has been reached.

On Monday a King County jury deemed Alaska Airlines “90% responsible” for Kekona’s fatal injuries, and has demanded the airline pay $3.19 million.

Alaska Airlines issued the following statement following the ruling:

“We’re disappointed in the ruling and are evaluating next steps. There is no more important responsibility than the safety and wellbeing of our guests, whether they’re in our care or the care of a vendor.”

My take on this situation

First and foremost, this is an incredibly tragic situation.

I’m not a lawyer, but on the surface I can appreciate how this is a complicated case — for one, you have three parties, since Alaska Airlines outsources the wheelchair escort services to a third party.

I get the family’s perspective — they asked for Kekona to have gate-to-gate help, and that wasn’t provided.

At the same time, Kekona had her own electric wheelchair, and it’s claimed that she declined help. If that was the case, they had no reason to question her on that. We see people all the time request wheelchairs to get on planes (because they want to board early), and then not use them when they get off the plane (because they don’t want to be last off).

If she wanted the wheelchair service but it wasn’t being provided, it sounds like she should have asked staff for help proactively. Her reservation didn’t reflect that she had any special needs beyond an escort, so the airline and contractors had no way to know that she may easily become confused, etc.

Of course I recognize it’s not always that straightforward. Airports are stressful places for many people, and it’s not unusual for airports to cause confusion and frustration among passengers. I understand the circumstances that could lead to something like this.

But it also raises the bigger question of what liability airlines have going forward. Again, so many people request wheelchair services but then don’t use them. In those situations, should airlines be liable for everything that happens at the airport when someone requested a wheelchair service but doesn’t use it?

Bottom line

In 2017, a 75-year-old woman died due to injuries resulting from a layover at Portland Airport. Her family had requested wheelchair services for her, but she ended up navigating the airport on her own. She became confused, and accidentally got on an escalator rather than an elevator.

The airline claims the woman had declined an escort, while the woman’s family claims she was left alone. Ultimately Alaska Airlines was found 90% responsible, and is now supposed to pay $3.19 million.

  1. I can’t imagine sending a family member in a wheelchair onto a flight by themselves. What happens if they need assistance in flight-like going to the bathroom. Flight attendants are not home health aids.

    Sounds like a family of gold diggers to me.

  2. This is a tough one, but I’m afraid I agree with the judgment. Whether or not the boxes for disability were checked in the reservation, the agent at check-in would/should have noticed this person was in a wheelchair.

    1) If it’s an electrical wheelchair, there are guidelines regarding the battery of the wheelchair where a form needs to be filled out by the agent prior to check-in.
    2) If the family requested that she be escorted on all legs on the flights, the agent can “check the boxes” in the reservation for all remaining legs of the journey. Was this done?
    3) Common sense: If you see someone in a wheelchair, they should’ve assigned someone to accompany them, even if it was just to walk by her side to ensure she boarded her flight/s safely. This would’ve been triggered automatically when the family requested the woman be escorted and the agent added the request to the reservation.

    Now, if she declined to be escorted, if the airline doesn’t have it already, they need to create a form that is signed by the person with the disability that they willingly declined assistance. That would free the airline of responsibility. It sounds like AS doesn’t have this currently. This would’ve freed them of any negligence.

  3. This is very tragic. Not a lawyer here nor do I even work in aviation industry. I understand the ticket is through Alaska Airlines but somehow I think the wheelchair contractor at PDX is at fault here. I’m guessing they’re the 10% to blame (since Alaska Airlines is to be blamed 90%?) If she did decline the help, it’s best for the wheelchair contractor or AS to have a form for her to sign (or videotape her declining it using their smartphone.)
    Each family is different. For mine, when my grandmother travelled at over age 85, someone from my family (either me, a cousin, uncle, etc.) always escorted her since that’s what fit our comfort level.

  4. This seems like the family has successfully milked a tragedy. The evidence would appear to indicate that additional assistance was not requested and thus not given. And, as an aside, how do you confuse and escalator with an elevator? While the words may have some similarities, the actual conveyances could not be more different. If you are wheelchair bound and don’t know one from the other, you won’t be with us for long.

    I hope Alaska Airlines appeals this pandering verdict.

  5. If grandma can’t tell the difference between an elevator and an escalator, don’t let her fly by herself. Don’t tell me she booked her own ticket. There’s plenty of blame to go around here. The family shouldn’t have sent her off on a flight all by herself. The airline and wheelchair company should not have let her head off unescorted without getting signed form declining service.

  6. The obsession to get crazy amounts of money from court for something that was just a pure tragic accident is mind-boggling. No one is at fault here and no one should. Btw, why does someone send their grandma in a wheelchair alone to the airport and flight anyway? I think the family should pay 3 million in emotional damages to the bystanders that had to experience this accident.

  7. People seem to quickly think Alaska did nothing wrong here but they didn’t provide the gate to gate assistance that should have been provided. Now they dispute this but unless you were there none of us really knows. The judge (not jury) ruled in favor of the family.

    Companies need to stop outsourcing services to the lowest bidders and then pretend they have no responsibility.

    A bunch of trolls around here with useless comments.

  8. This is clearly a tragedy.

    Sanchez has the right procedure (airline at check-in would have noticed and filled out paperwork for electric wheelchair), but the wrong conclusions. One family member is in an electric wheelchair and frequently travels by themselves (not elderly). It would be stupid, but given litigation in the US not absurd, for the airline to require a “waiver of liability” every time someone turns down service.

    I’ll say this, it’s hard to me to see good faith on the family’s part because I’ve seen multiple times people with electric wheelchairs take escalators and let me me unequivocal: they know exactly what they are doing! It’s usually because elevators are hard to find, far, long-line, or otherwise inconvenient. Sure they’re the first choice, but the escalator gets used once in a while too.

    Is it advised? Of course not. Is it a calculated risk? Absolutely.

    So hard to believe that someone who feels comfortable travelling alone whilst in a wheelchair (which is totally fine and I’ve seen this done without issues multiple times), would then suddenly “become confused”—-sorry but no, they took a chance (likely not their first) and suffered the tragic consequences.

    Like I said, very tragic, but I’m fairly certain the grandmother boarded the escalator fully aware of the risks.

  9. Ben, the speculative nature of this post is in extremely poor taste (as are the responses). There is no need to encourage conjecture as to culpability in the death of an elderly, disabled woman.

  10. It is sad how some here see the family.
    The woman needed not just wheelchair help but also oversight such as with an unaccompanied minor that cannot move around the airport by themselves whether they want to or not. I am sure there was alot of discussion by the jury re: what the family told AS and why the “other boxes” weren’t checked. It would be interesting to know if the call was recorded and if that call was admitted to the court.
    Clearly the jury (I presume this was a jury trial) believed that AS erred in not providing oversight even if the lady herself said she could manage herself.
    Companies always assume responsibility for the employees and contractors. The family did not request wheelchair service from a contractor but from AS.

    This case is a reminder that expecting someone else to care for someone or something that is very valuable to you is risky. It would have been a whole lot safer if a family member had flown to Hawaii to meet her and then flown back with her.

  11. @Tortuga
    Any news of litigation would be speculative in nature unless you were personally involved in the trial. That the topic matter is too upsetting for you is not Ben’s problem.
    Feel free to skip this post.

  12. Alaska was negligent but…….If that was my mother, she would never been alone. Why would they leave the safety of a fragile old person to strangers? The family either lacked common sense or they just don’t care. Yes, I blame the family as much as I blame Alaska, probably much more. If you think the family does not share fault, then you probably blame every problem in your life to others.

  13. This makes me think of all the wheelchair pre-boarders that get “cured” as 30,000 en route to south Florida.

    I wonder if they’d keep up the rouse if they were forced to stay seated and then sign waivers declining the wheelchair to disembark.

  14. It smells like a family that didn’t give a shit about this person, until they with the help of a lawyer smelled a payday. Ask anyone that cleans out elderly homes when they die, relatives come out of the woodwork to get the expensive stuff

  15. Did anyone question how the family knew about what happened? They were not there, yet they have all of these claims. Perhaps airlines need to have proof when people deny requests for services like wheelchairs to prevent events like this.

  16. Elderly people can get confused, so whether she declined help is neither here nor there. The family booked gate-to-gate assistance, and that’s what the lady should have received.

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