Judge dismisses lawsuit filed by woman who crawled onto American Airlines plane


A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a wheelchair-bound woman who was forced to crawl onto a plane.

Theresa Purcell has a bone disease that keeps her in a wheelchair.

In 2013, the Farrington High School graduate was taking an American Airlines commuter flight from San Diego to Los Angeles on her way to Hawaii when the agent at the gate told her it was too late to set up a ramp so she could board. Instead, Purcell had to get off her wheelchair and crawl all the way to her seat.

Court documents filed Friday outline the judge’s reasoning.

One major factor, according to the order, was that Purcell failed to check the “Special Services Request” box while making her online reservation, which would have told the airline that she needed assistance. The order says that at her deposition, Purcell said “she did not do so because she believed it was a waste of time. She had checked similar boxes for previous flights on other airlines, but, according to Plaintiff, doing so had no effect. When she did fill out such forms, she would still have to repeat her request at the airport because the staff did not know she needed assistance.”

Another factor, the order said, is that while Purcell and her sister arrived at the gate with “a lot of time left before the departure.” However, they did not request assistance until 20 minutes later, after which, the airline argued, “there was insufficient time to make arrangements to obtain a ramp from another part of the airport.”

The ACAA regulations do require carriers to “offer preboarding to passengers with a disability,” but only where they “self-identify at the gate as needing additional time or assistance to board.” 14 C.F.R. § 382.93 (emphasis added). This Court is not aware of any binding authority interpreting the ACAA regulations as imposing a duty upon carriers to offer assistance to a passenger who has not requested assistance. This Court therefore CONCLUDES that the ACAA and its implementing regulations do not impose an affirmative duty on carriers to offer assistance to passengers who have disabilities but who have not requested assistance. …

Undoubtedly, having to board her flight by crawling up the stairs was an unpleasant, even humiliating, experience for Plaintiff. Although this Court understands Plaintiff’s outrage at the situation, this Court notes that, to support an IIED (intentional infliction of emotional distress) claim, it is the defendant’s actions that must have been outrageous, not the plaintiff’s experience. …

As previously noted, there is no evidence in the record which indicates that Defendant’s failure to have an operational ramp/lift was the result of a breach of a duty under the ACAA. Thus, based on the timing of Plaintiff’s request for assistance and the fact that both of the ramps/lifts that Defendant had ready access to were not in service on the day of Plaintiff’s flight, this Court CONCLUDES, as a matter of law, that Defendant’s failure to provide Plaintiff with a ramp/lift for boarding under those circumstances did not rise to the level of outrageous conduct that would support an IIED claim.

Click here to read the final court order in its entirety.

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