Family of disabled great-grandmother sues Alaska Airlines for escalator fall that lead to her death

File photo.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Credit: David McNew

Credit: David McNew

File photo. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The Spokane family of a 75-year-old great-grandmother who uses a wheelchair is suing Alaska Airlines and its contractor Huntleigh USA, claiming airline workers' failure to care for the woman resulted in her fall down an escalator at Portland International Airport and her death three months later from her injuries.

Bernice Kekona’s family requested a gate-to-gate escort service during her trip from Maui to Spokane in June 2017, according to the lawsuit. The suit alleges that Kekona’s family called Alaska Airlines three times to make sure she would not be left alone during her trip. Federal law requires airlines to assist disabled passengers on and off their flights and between gates to make connections.

Kekona, who had impaired vision and hearing, also had a prosthetic left leg and used a power wheelchair for mobility.

The lawsuit claims Kekona was helped off her Alaska flight from Maui to Portland, but workers from Huntleigh USA left her alone in the terminal to find her next gate. Kekona is seen on Portland airport surveillance video, wandering through the airport and moving her wheelchair to the top of an escalator.

The lawsuit claims Kekona, who suffered extensive injuries in the fall, told first responders she was confused and thought she was boarding an elevator before she fell down 22 escalator steps, face-first with her heavy electric wheelchair on top of her.

Alaska Airlines spokesperson Bobbie Egan released this statement:

We're heartbroken by this tragic and disturbing incident.

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. 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.

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. We learned from bystanders that Ms. Kekona sustained a fall while attempting to operate her own electronic chair down a moving escalator next to the A concourse elevator. 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."

The lawsuit claims the airline had a responsibility to escort Kekona to her connecting flight in Portland, no matter what she may have told a worker, or what boxes they may not have checked. The case is scheduled for trial next December.