A Denied Boarding with a Tragic Twist

There’s certainly no shortage of denied airline boardings involving wheelchair-users who travel unaccompanied. And for the most part these incidents usually involve passengers who are unable to evacuate the airplane on their own, in the event of an emergency.

But here’s a new twist on it all. What if the airlines are unable to physically accommodate a disabled passenger? And what if this happens, not once, not twice, but three times? And what if the passenger dies as a result of that denied boarding? Well, that’s exactly what happened to Vilma Soltesz last month; and now attorney Holly Ostrov Ronai is seeking $6 million in damages from the airlines, claiming that they violated the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

It’s a complex story, but here’s how the Soltesz saga unfolded.

On September 17, 2012 she flew to Hungary on Delta and KLM. She was morbidly obese, had diabetes, kidney disease, used a wheelchair and had one leg amputated. And although she purchased two seats for herself, she traveled with her husband to Budapest without incident. She was due to return to New York on October 15 for medical treatment.

But apparently Vilma gained some weight while visiting her native Hungary. She reportedly weighed approximately 425 pounds, and appeared to have a severely distended belly when she appeared on Hungarian TV, just days before she died.

In any case, her troubles started when she tried to board the return KLM flight. They were able to get her on the plane, but they didn’t have a seat belt extender large enough for her. Airline employees also claimed that the seat would not support Soltesz’s weight. So she was denied boarding.

Airline employees tried to find a flight on a larger aircraft for her, and finally booked her on a flight from Prague on Delta. After the five-hour drive, Delta employees told Soltesz that the boarding chair would not support her weight. Additionally, she was too heavy to use the sky lift elevator. She was once again denied boarding.

Finally, her travel agent found an October 22 flight on Lufthansa, to New York via Frankfurt that would be able to accommodate her. Although the airline blocked three seats for her, airline employees were unable to lift her into the seats. They even sought assistance from the local fire department, but they were unsuccessful. After 30 minutes of trying, the airline captain ordered them to stop, and denied boarding to Soltesz once again.

After that things went downhill quickly. Soltesz got sicker and sicker, but she refused to see a Hungarian doctor. She didn’t trust Hungarian doctors, and she wanted to see he own specialist in New York, who was familiar with her complex medical history. Soltesz died two days later.

A very sad story indeed, but what does the law say about it?

First, let’s talk about jurisdiction. The ACAA covers foreign air carriers only on flights to and from the US, so the connecting KLM flight from Budapest would not be covered. Neither would the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. Those both fall under the jurisdiction of the European Union’s regulations for passengers with reduced mobility. Those regulations state that airlines cannot deny boarding to disabled passengers, unless the aircraft is too small, or there is a safety issue. And again, that’s something that’s not going to be decided in a US court.

So that leaves the Delta flight from Prague, which does fall under the jurisdiction of the ACAA, because Delta is a US airline. Basically the ACAA says that airlines may not deny boarding to a disabled passenger solely because of a disability; however they can refuse passage if they feel it would create a safety issue for passengers or crew members. There are no clear cut guidelines on what exactly presents a safety hazard, and that decision is left solely to that airline.

Additionally, there are no regulations regarding the size and weight capacity of airport wheelchairs, aisle chairs or on-board wheelchairs.

And although FAA regulations require seat belts for every passenger, there is no requirement to carry seat belt extenders. That said, seatbelt extenders are the only FAA approved method of securement for large passengers. There are also no regulations regarding the size or weight capacity of airline seats.

The airlines all claim that they did everything in their power to try and accommodate Soltesz.

The Soltesz’s travel agent also worked valiantly to try to get the couple home.

It’s a hard call, but in my opinion, since there are no specifications in the ACAA regarding the weight capacity of boarding devices, then Delta was following the ACAA, when they denied boarding to Soltesz. It should also be noted, that the ACAA actually prohibits airline employees from hand carrying passengers on board, so that wasn’t an option either.

Still I just have to wonder if anything could have been done to prevent this terrible tragedy.

Although I’m not a huge proponent of travel insurance, I think in this case it would have been prudent. I mean if you already have several medical conditions and have to return on a certain date for medical treatment, it just makes sense. After all, what if your condition got worse and you had to get home to see a specialist? Although Soltesz definitely had some pre-existing conditions, she most likely would have been able to get a policy if she purchased it within two weeks of making her air reservations. And again, I think that would have been the prudent thing to do in this case.

Most of my travel agent friends agree with me on that. And so do my friends who have pre-existing conditions and have had to come home from a trip by air ambulance. If Soltesz had purchased travel insurance, she could have flown home on an air ambulance when she was denied passage on her first flight.

I have no idea if the travel agent offered the Solteszs travel insurance, but according to Findlaw, travel agents have the duty to inform clients about the availability of travel insurance. And according to several travel agents I spoke to, if the agent can’t prove that the couple refused the offered coverage, then the agent could be liable.

There are many facets to this case, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in court – if it even gets that far.