25-year-old Gaby Assouline has passed away after an extended hospital battle which began after she fell off her wheelchair while boarding a Southwest Airlines flight. Her family claims Southwest Airlines was negligent. But did Assouline assume the risk by declining boarding assistance?
Family Sues Southwest Airlines, Alleges Wheelchair Accident Killed Their Daughter
Before I go further, I wish to express my supreme condolences to the family of Ms. Assouline. What a horrible loss. What a tragic way to die.
In short, Assouline has a rare condition called Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) which turns muscle tissue into bone.
While boarding a Southwest Airlines flight in February 2022 in Fort Lauderdale with her electric mobility scooter, Assouline reportedly declined assistance from G2, Southwest’s contractor for passengers needing wheelchair assurance, and proceeded down the jet bridge herself.
But when she hit an uneven surface, she lurched off the wheelchair, falling onto the jet bridge floor and fractured her vertebrae.
She spent the next 11 months in an intensive care unit, breathing through a ventilator, until the ventilator was unplugged last month and she passed away.
The family initially sued Southwest Airlines in March 2022 on negligence grounds and can now update its lawsuit to include a wrongful death complaint, even as thier daughter was functionally dead (breathing via respirator and in a coma) for nearly a year. Southwest contended in court papers that Assouline refused assistance.
Does The Family Have A Case Against Southwest?
I’ve read the complaint.
Part of me cannot blame the family for seeking to cash in on this traffic accident in our litigious-friendly, ambulance-chasing US culture. They will probably net a lucrative settlement from Southwest just to make this go away.
And of course no amount of money can bring their daughter back or act a replacement.
But Southwest says that Assouline refused assistance while boarding, stating that she could board on her own. Thus, practical questions include:
- Was Southwest (and its contractor handling passengers with wheelchairs) reasonable in allowing Assouline to go down the jet bridge herself? What duty of care did it have?
- Would a reasonable wheelchair user have anticipated and seen the uneven surface of a junction in the airbridge? Was the jetway inherently dangerous?
- Was there a superseding cause in the hospital or a pre-existing condition that better explains her death?
- What blame does the airport share, if any at all, for installing and maintaining the jet bridges?
An amusement park cannot just eliminate its legal liability for a roller coaster flying off the tracks and killing you by having you sign a waiver. Here, was Southwest even in a position to grant Assouline a waiver?
What are the societal consequences of allowing defendants to assume the risk but then sue as if they had not?
This tragic case presents a number of questions that are not so black and white. What occurred is horrible. But should Southwest Airlines be on the hook for it? While I expect this case to settle early on, it will be a fascinating case to follow.
(H/T: Paddle Your Own Kanoo)