The family of a Spokane Valley woman filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alaska Airlines on Wednesday, claiming that a contractor failed to escort their elderly mother to her gate for a flight to Spokane. That mistake, they claim, resulted in the woman falling down an escalator, and the injuries she sustained led to the woman’s death in September.
Spokane attorneys Brook Cunningham and Troy Nelson filed the lawsuit this week in King County Superior Court in Seattle, where Alaska Airlines is based. The suit was filed on behalf of Darlene Bloyed, the oldest of eight children of the late Bernice Kekona. Kekona was 75.
Kekona was born and raised in Hawaii, but moved to Spokane Valley in 2012 to live with Bloyed after having a leg amputated following complications from diabetes. As a result, the family always made it a point to request gate-to-gate service for Kekona whenever she traveled by airplane, the attorneys said.
“She was living here for the health care,” Cunningham said. “For the last three years before this, she had traveled back to Maui for one-month stays using the exact same service that was requested in the same exact way. And she got the service on the first leg of her trip.”
In response to a request for comment Thursday, Alaska Airlines media relations director Bobbie Egan issued a statement offering the following explanation for the incident, which occurred on June 7 at Portland International Airport:
“We’re heartbroken by this tragic and disturbing incident. After landing in Portland, Ms. Kekona was assisted into her own motorized scooter by an airport consortium wheelchair service provider who then escorted her from the aircraft into the concourse. Once in the concourse, she went off on her own.”
Egan said company officials learned from bystanders that Kekona had fallen down the escalator, still strapped to her motorized scooter. “We immediately called the Port of Portland Fire and Rescue, along with Port of Portland Police, who responded to the scene quickly to provide her medical treatment,” he said.
During the fall, which was caught on video, Kekona suffered several cuts, bruises and a severe injury to the Achilles tendon in her remaining leg. That injury later became infected, and doctors amputated the leg on Sept. 19 in an attempt to battle the infection, according to suit.
She died the next day.
“Between her injury and her death, Bernice incurred almost $300,000 in medical bills to treat her injuries from the fall,” Nelson and Cunningham wrote.
The attorneys said that Kekona’s family checked with Alaska Airlines officials to make sure that she would have the same gate-to-gate service that they had requested and received on all previous flights, including the connection flight earlier that day to Seattle.
“Things broke down on the way home,” Nelson said. The family “called on three separate occasions to make sure she would get the gate-to-gate service in Portland. Bernice was the last person off the plane. They put her in her personal wheel chair … and then left her wandering by herself to find her flight home to Spokane.”
In its statement, Alaska Airlines disputed the attorneys’ account, saying it appeared the family failed to check the box that would indicate Kekona was a passenger with “other special needs.”
“We don’t have all the facts, but after conducting a preliminary investigation, it appears that Ms. Kekona declined ongoing assistance in the terminal and decided to proceed on her own to her connecting flight,” Egan said.
According to the lawsuit, Alaska Airlines claimed to have requested the gate-to-gate service for Kekona from its contractor, Huntleigh USA Corporation. But Huntleigh officials claim that Alaska Airlines “failed to communicate” that Kekona had requested the gate-to-gate assistance.
“By law, all air carriers are required to provide gate-to-gate escort service for disabled persons,” Nelson said. “It’s not something they voluntarily provide. When it’s requested, it’s required.”
After she was left in her chair, Kekona later said, she became confused as she looked for her gate to Spokane. At one point, Kekona showed her ticket to an Alaska Airlines employee and asked for help, but the employee “again, failed to provide her the gate-to-gate assistance as required,” the lawsuit states.
“Had Bernice’s family known this gate-to-gate assistance was not going to be provided on the trip at issue, they never would have sent her on that trip,” the attorneys wrote.
She eventually found herself at the top of an escalator and then tumbled down 21 escalator steps. After Kekona was rushed to the hospital, Alaska Airlines then charged Kekona’s daughter and granddaughter $176.40 each to fly to Portland.
“Alaska Airlines further failed to provide Bernice’s daughter and granddaughter with assistance with the hotel and rental car needed to stay and get to Bernice in the hospital trauma unit,” the lawsuit states.
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