Spirit Airlines Abandoned Disabled Passenger, Suit Alleges

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By Steven M. Sellers

Spirit Airlines Inc. left a severely disabled, wheelchair-bound passenger alone for hours at a Florida airport last year, according to a May 11 complaint filed in the Southern District of Florida ( Avellan v. Spirit Airlines, Inc. , S.D. Fla., No. 17-cv-60923, amended complaint filed 5/11/17 ).

Employees at Spirit’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport allegedly failed to properly monitor and transport Homer Avellan to a connecting flight to New York City, the complaint says.

Avellan is paralyzed by a stroke and has difficulty speaking, according to the complaint.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is the latest example of passengers alleging negligence and mistreatment by major air carriers.

In an incident that garnered national attention, United Airlines’ passenger David Dao agreed to a confidential, out-of-court settlement in April after he was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Mike Danko, a plaintiffs’ lawyer and an experienced pilot whose practice includes litigation against airlines, said the United and Spirit incidents are just the most recent examples of airline abuses against passengers. And, in the Avellan incident, including against the disabled.

“Airlines find that it’s cheaper to strand disabled passengers and then pay them off than it is to train airline personnel and comply with the law,” said Danko, who is not involved in either case.

Alone in a Wheelchair

In the Spirit incident, the airline allegedly agreed to assist Avellan on a flight from Nicaragua to New York City, with a layover in Fort Lauderdale, but he wasn’t on the last leg of the planned journey.

The airline advised Avellan’s wife, Jeannette, that it had rebooked him a later flight to New York. She called a customer service desk to verify the arrangements but got no answer, according to the complaint.

That prompted her to call a family member in Florida, who found Avellan “alone in his wheelchair and weeping.”

An airport employee told the family member that Avellan “had been there in that position since the beginning of that person’s shift,” according to the complaint.

Avellan, who lives in Suffolk County, New York, allegedly went without food and medications during the day, and was treated for sores and bruising resulting from the prolonged stay in his wheelchair.

He claims Spirit negligently trained its employees and that it violated the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986, a federal law requiring airlines to assist disabled passengers.

Avellan’s attorney, Nolan Klein, declined to comment on the substantive allegations May 11. Klein is with the Nolan Klein law offices in Fort Lauderdale.

A spokesman for Spirit declined to comment on the claims in a May 11 email, saying the company hadn’t been served with the complaint.

Air Carrier Access Act Violation Alleged

“Air travel is largely a matter of contract between the passenger and the traveler,” Danko, of Danko Meredith in Redwood Shores, California, told Bloomberg BNA May 11.

“The contract is slanted entirely in the airline’s favor,” said Danko. “Unless the traveler is injured in a crash, the traveler has few rights.”

One exception, however, is the AACA, which requires that airlines make certain accommodations for passengers with disabilities, including assisting in boarding, deplaning and making flight connections.

Spirit’s website notes that it provides “wheelchair assistance,” and also states that travelers should “alert our station agents of any disability accommodations you require.”

ACAA suits “have been going on for quite some time,” said Danko, who isn’t involved in Avellan’s case.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven M. Sellers in Washington at ssellers@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com

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