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Airline ordered to pay $3 million to Maui family in wrongful death suit

Bernice Kekona was left alone at airport and was injured in fall

An Alaska Airlines jet makes its final approach to Kahului Airport in 2016. A jury in King County, Washington state, has ordered the airline to pay $3.2 million to a Maui family who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the company. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A jury in Washington state has ordered Alaska Airlines to pay $3.2 million to the family of Bernice Kekona, a Kahakuloa woman who died just months after falling down an escalator in her wheelchair at the Portland International Airport in 2017.

The two-week jury trial by Zoom came to an end Monday, a little over three years after the Kekona family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in King County Superior Court in Seattle.

“For me, no amount of money can bring back what we lost,” grandson Rodney Kekona told The Maui News on Tuesday. “It’s been a hard time for me, especially when we first lost her, and just to relive all these moments, it’s been tough.”

Bernice Kekona, 75, had been traveling home from Maui to Spokane on June 7, 2017, and was scheduled to receive gate-to-gate assistance at the Portland airport. Two employees of airline contractor Huntleigh USA transferred her to her wheelchair just outside the airplane door and left her there, according to the lawsuit. She 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, she became disoriented. Thinking she was heading for the elevator, she rolled onto the escalator and tumbled down 21 steps, landing with the heavy wheelchair on top of her.

Bernice Kekona (center) is pictured with grandson Rodney Kekona and great-granddaughters Kilinahe Kekona (from left), Anuhea Patao and Kahiwaonalani Kekona at the Kahului Airport before her flight back to Spokane in June 2017. Bernice Kekona fell down an escalator while searching for her connecting flight in Portland and died months later. Photo courtesy Kekona family

She suffered trauma to her head and chest, escalator marks on her face and an Achilles tendon injury that led to septic infection, according to the family’s attorneys at Luvera Law Firm and Randall Danskin. After three months of a painful and unsuccessful recovery process, doctors amputated her leg on Sept. 19, 2017. She died the next day “from overwhelming infection” and incurred nearly $300,000 in medical bills.

The family’s lawyers said when the lawsuit was filed that they did not believe her death was due to medical malpractice.

Brook Cunningham of Randall Danskin said the “biggest argument in the case” was whether Bernice Kekona declined the gate-to-gate service, as Alaska Airlines had argued. The airline had also claimed the family failed to check the proper boxes to request assistance while booking the flight.

Cunningham countered that family members went “above and beyond” to make sure she was signed up for the service, double-checking with the airline five times, including the day before she left and the day of her trip.

“It was in their paperwork, in their system,” Cunningham said. “We had multiple witnesses, including the dispatch personnel in Portland who took the phone call as well as one of the wheelchair attendants that responded to the plane, who both testified in the case that they were not informed that Bernice needed gate-to-gate service.”

Bernice Kekona (center) poses in the snow with grandson Rodney Kekona (back, right) and his family when they visited her in Spokane in December 2015. Also pictured are Brandi Ferguson (from left), Kilinahe Kekona, Anuhea Patao, Kahiwaonalani Kekona and Kamaile Kekona. Photo courtesy Kekona family

“The jury concluded that Bernice did not decline the service but instead Alaska failed to communicate the service and then abandoned her in the airport to find her own way,” Cunningham said.

The 12-member jury called for nearly $1.8 million in economic and noneconomic damages for Bernice Kekona and $225,000 to each of her eight children, according to court documents. They also placed 90 percent of the blame on Alaska Airlines and 10 percent on Bernice Kekona, which Cunningham explained is “pretty common in a negligence case.”

“I think it’s a significant amount of money for a case like this,” Cunningham said. “It’s not often that you get an over $3 million verdict even against Alaska Airlines, particularly since they’re funding their legal team and they fought this from the beginning to the end. That said, it’s not significant to the family in that they’d give up any second to have Bernice back.”

Alaska Airlines said in a statement on Tuesday that “we’re disappointed in the ruling and are evaluating next steps.”

“There is no more important responsibility than the safety and well-being of our guests, whether they’re in our care or the care of a vendor,” the airline said.

Bernice Kekona (fourth from left) enjoys time with her mo‘opuna before flying back to Spokane in the summer of 2016. From left to right are Ka‘io Kekona, Anuhea Patao, Kahe Kekona, Kilinahe Kekona, Mekia Kekona-Eaton, Kahiwaonalani Kekona and Kai‘ehu Kealoha. Photo courtesy Kekona family

Rodney Kekona said that the lawsuit and trial had been difficult for the family, bringing up painful memories of the frantic phone call he got the morning after from his mom, the search for answers as airline officials blamed the family and the moments they spent in his grandmother’s hospital room the day she died.

“I just want them to do a better process of taking care of our kupuna, cause I really think this could’ve been prevented, and my grandma still could’ve been here,” he said. “That’s what they failed to realize, in my opinion.”

Rodney Kekona, who lives in Happy Valley, said that his grandmother “helped raise me from a little boy to where I’m at now.”

“She was a big part of this family that helped mold us, myself anyway, and I’m gonna miss that,” he said. “To this day I’m still kicking myself in the butt, like I should’ve paid attention more to her when she talked about the valleys out there, her favorite fishing spots.”

He described her as “selfless,” someone who never cared about herself but was always looking out for other people. She also loved to cook.

“Farm to table, that was her. She could catch, clean and cook everything, and it was a feast every time we were with her,” he said. “She had a family of eight (kids). She was very resourceful, and I’m just gonna miss her laughter, her time with her grandkids. She really loved her grandkids.”

Bernice Kekona was born and raised in Kahakuloa and was a former bus driver for Roberts Hawaii, according to the family. She moved to Spokane Valley, Wash., to live with her daughter Darlene Bloyed and her two granddaughters, and to get access to better medical care after her leg had to be amputated and replaced with a prosthetic in 2012.

Every so often she flew home to Maui, where seven of her eight children and now 24 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren still live.

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

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