Wrongful death suit filed against Alaska Airlines

Wheelchair service in Portland, Ore., also party to lawsuit after passenger falls, dies

Bernice Kekona (center) poses with family members at the Kahului Airport before her flight back to Spokane, Wash., on June 7. The family is filing a lawsuit against Alaska Airlines and contractor Huntleigh USA for allegedly failing to escort Kekona to her connecting flight during a stopover in Portland, Ore. Kekona fell down an escalator while in her wheelchair and later died from injuries sustained in the fall, the family said. The airline claims Kekona declined assistance. Bernice Kekona family photo

On June 7, former Maui resident Bernice Kekona was searching for her connecting flight when she accidentally rolled her wheelchair onto an escalator and fell down 21 steps at the Portland International Airport in Oregon.

Three months after the 75-year-old Kekona died from injuries suffered in the fall, her family is filing a lawsuit against Alaska Airlines and wheelchair service provider Huntleigh USA for failing to escort Kekona to her flight — after the family requested and confirmed gate-to-gate assistance multiple times, the family’s lawyer said.

“It’s the same service she’s used three years in a row,” said Spokane, Wash., attorney Brook Cunningham, who along with Troy Nelson is representing Kekona’s oldest daughter Darlene Bloyed. “Not only did the family sign up for the services, but they went above and beyond and confirmed it three separate times.”

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed Dec. 27 in King County Superior Court in Seattle.

Kekona was born and raised in Kahakuloa and was a former bus driver for Roberts Hawaii, according to the family. Her seven children and most of her 24 grandchildren and 31 great-grandchildren still live on Maui, Cunningham said. In 2012, Kekona’s leg had to be amputated and replaced with a prosthetic, prompting her to move to Spokane Valley, Wash., to live with Bloyed and Kekona’s two granddaughters. Kekona suffered from diabetes as well as visual, auditory and mental impairments.

Every so often, she flew back to Maui for a month to visit her other children. In March, she purchased a round-trip ticket to Maui and “requested ‘mobility/wheelchair’ assistance for entire trip,” the lawsuit says.

“The family actually called immediately after booking the flight back in March and confirmed the service would be provided,” Cunningham said. “On June 6, the day before the flight, the family confirmed a second time. On June 7, when she left Maui, they confirmed at the airport counter.”

He said Kekona received assistance on the way to Maui but not on the way back.

Kekona’s return flight arrived in Portland at 8:13 p.m. June 7, according to the lawsuit. She was the last passenger to get off the plane. Two Huntleigh employees transferred Kekona to her wheelchair just outside the the airplane door and left her there, the lawsuit says. Kekona showed her ticket to an Alaska Airlines employee who gave her directions but did not provide gate-to-gate assistance.

On her way through the airport, Kekona became disoriented and thought she was heading to the elevator when she actually rolled onto the escalator. She tumbled down 21 steps and landed with the several-hundred-pound wheelchair on top of her. Surveillance video in the airport shows a man racing down the opposite escalator to try to stop Kekona’s fall while other bystanders rush in to shut off the escalator and assist Kekona, who was strapped into her chair.

Kekona suffered multiple injuries, including lacerations to her arms, legs and face; knee abrasions and an ulcer wound on her right Achilles heel.

Cunningham said doctors spent three and a half months “trying to get that wound under control,” but Kekona was diabetic and had trouble healing. The wound eventually became infected and forced doctors to amputate her leg below the knee Sept. 19. She died the next day. Between her injury and death, Kekona incurred almost $300,000 in medical bills, the lawsuit says.

Cunningham said he believes medical malpractice had nothing to do with her death.

Alaska Airlines could not be reached for additional comment late Tuesday, but the airline has told news organizations that, “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.”

Alaska Airlines said that Huntleigh helped Kekona into her own motorized scooter after she landed in Portland, and that “once in the concourse, she went off on her own.”

The airline also said it appears Kekona’s family did not check the proper boxes to request assistance while booking the flight, and that there were no indications Kekona had any impairments. Cunningham said it doesn’t make sense for the airline to make that claim because it provided the service when Kekona was traveling to Maui.

According to the lawsuit, “Alaska Airlines alleges it called Huntleigh . . . to communicate the Special Services requested by Bernice and her family. Huntleigh alleges Alaska Airlines failed to communicate to Huntleigh that Bernice required the gate-to-gate assistance.”

The family is seeking reparation for damages and expenses to be determined by the court.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.