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Alaska Airlines is being sued by the family of the late Bernice Kekona for wrongful death for not properly escorting her through the airport as contracted by the airline with Huntleigh USA, the wheelchair service company.
Bernice, a 75-year-old grandmother, fell down an escalator in her electric wheelchair, succumbing 3 months later to injuries she sustained from the fall. The grandmother was traveling from Hawaii to Spokane, Washington, with a stopover at Portland International Airport in Oregon for a plane change in June 2017.
Upon landing in Portland, Bernice was helped into a seat-belted wheelchair and was supposed to be escorted to the connecting gate, however, a video shows she left on her own.
Whether she chose to leave or was left to navigate on her own is not clear. A video shows Bernice showing her ticket to an Alaska Airlines employee at the arrival gate who points out the direction she needed to go in. Video also shows Bernice stopping at a security checkpoint to look for her gate.
According to the lawsuit, Bernice explained from her hospital room after the incident that she became confused and thought she was getting into an elevator. Instead she and the wheelchair tumbled 21 steps down the moving escalator.
In airport surveillance video obtained by ABC-affiliate KXLY, two men, on opposite sides of the escalator Bernice was on, jumped over to provide immediate assistance. The video also shows a woman who stopped the escalator with the emergency stop button and others that were in the airport helping to get the wheelchair and Bernice upright.
Kekona’s family says Bernice suffered trauma to her head and chest, a cut to her Achilles tendon, and gashes on the side of her face. Her tendon never healed, and an infection lead to an amputation, which she never recovered from. Her blood pressure dropped during that surgery, and she died the following day.
Bernice in the hospital
Alaska Airlines is investigating and said “it appears that Ms. Kekona declined ongoing assistance in the terminal and decided to proceed on her own to her connecting flight. It also appears that when her family members booked the reservation, they did not check any of the boxes for a passenger with ‘Blind/low vision,’ ‘Deaf/hard of hearing,’ or ‘Other special needs (i.e., developmental or intellectual disability, senior/elderly).’ So, there was no indication in the reservation that Ms. Kekona had cognitive, visual, or auditory impairments.” The airlines said Kekona had the right to decline wheelchair services.
The CEO of Huntleigh USA Corporation, the wheelchair and electric cart service contracted by Alaska Airlines to accompany Bernice to her gate, said they are investigating the incident with their own legal counsel.
Federal law regulations require airlines to provide assistance to disabled travelers, including when making connections.