A jury ordered Alaska Airlines on Monday to pay $3.2 million to the family of a disabled Spokane woman who fell down an escalator at the Portland airport in June 2017 and later died.
The judgment was handed down after a two-week virtual trial held in King County. The compensation will go to the members of Bernice Kekona’s estate, who brought the legal action in December 2017 alleging the airline did not meet its duty under federal law to provide a gate-to-gate escort for Kekona on a trip back to Spokane from Hawaii.
“The family confirmed and requested this service five separate times,” said Brook Cunningham, an attorney at the firm Randall Danskin that represented the family. Her legal team included Spokane attorney Shamus O’Doherty.
Kekona also received the gate-to-gate service on her trip to Hawaii a month prior, and in a previous trip to Hawaii on Delta Airlines, according to court records. The lawsuit was filed in King County by Darlene Bloyed, the oldest of Kekona’s eight children.
Bloyed called her mother “a neat lady” who was happiest when she got to see her family in her native Hawaii, just as she did before the visit that ended in her fall.
“She was our elder, and we take care of our parents,” Bloyed said.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines said it was reviewing the verdict.
“We’re disappointed in the ruling and are evaluating next steps,” the airline said in an emailed statement. “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.”
Alaska was working with a third-party vendor to provide assistance to passengers requiring help due to disabilities, a duty required under a 1986 federal law prohibiting discrimination by commercial airlines. The lawsuit alleged that Alaska failed to inform that vendor, whom the airline no longer works with at the Portland International Airport, that Kekona needed help getting from one gate to another as she connected back to Spokane.
Workers assisted Kekona, who traveled by motorized wheelchair, off of her connecting flight. But the airline argued that Kekona refused assistance once she was returned to her wheelchair. The family says they informed Alaska that Kekona could become confused in strange locations.
The jury was shown surveillance video of Kekona’s fall, including one angle that showed multiple passengers receiving assistance exiting an elevator inside the concourse. Kekona approaches the top of the escalator leading down in her wheelchair, before accelerating and tumbling down the still-moving escalator.
A man riding up the other side comes to her assistance, as do several other passengers. One passenger hits the emergency stop button, halting the movement of the escalator, as others attempt to lift the electric wheelchair off Kekona. Paramedics and police arrive, eventually moving her to a stretcher after about 20 minutes. Kekona suffered wounds and an infection as a result of the fall, and her leg was amputated before she died Sept. 20, 2017, at the age of 75.
The jury was asked to ascribe percentages of fault for the fall, and agreed that 90% of the blame fell on Alaska. The verdict does not require Alaska to change any of its rules, but Cunningham said he hoped the judgment would send the message such changes are necessary to prevent future falls.
“The verdict doesn’t require them to change their communication, but hopefully it provides some context to where they should change their communication system,” he said.
Bloyed said Monday’s decision marked the end of a “long road” that’s lasted four years. Her mother was in a great deal of pain before her death and required several painkiller medications.
“This is healing, and closure and justice for my mom,” Bloyed said.
Alaska has 30 days from the entry of the judgment to appeal it to a higher court.
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