Wheelchair-bound woman files lawsuit after crawling into plane

Theresa Purcell
Theresa Purcell

UPDATE: Airline refuses to compensate wheelchair-bound woman forced to crawl onto plane

A woman in a wheelchair was told to board a flight on her own and she did so by crawling up the stairs to the plane. At the time, the airline told her it was too late to get her the help she needed.

It happened to Theresa Purcell as she boarded a flight to make her way back home two years ago. Purcell was raised in Hawaii and recently moved to San Diego.

She would rather be known as Reece Purcell, someone who has to get by in a wheelchair.

On the day she caught an American Airlines commuter flight from San Diego, she asked the gate agent for help to get up the stairs to the plane.

“So when I asked that I can’t walk up on the stairs, and then she was like, so how you going get on the plane then? And I was like, oh wow,” said Purcell. “I crawled up onto the steps. I crawled into the plane. There was no other way for me to get on the plane so I crawled up to the plane.”

Christy Ho has known Purcell for years and is her attorney. “When she got on the plane, the flight attendant tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re a trooper. I’ve never seen anybody crawl like that,'” said Ho.

In response to Ho’s lawsuit against the airline, the company apologize last month in a written statement. In part, the statement issued by Christy Garden, DOT Liaison, Customer Relations, American Airlines/US Airways Corporate Office said:

“On behalf of US Airways and American Airlines, please accept our apologies for the difficulties Ms. Purcell experienced with her request for level entry boarding. It is imperative to provide essential care and to have a sensitive approach when assisting our passengers who have special needs.

“According to CFR 14 Part 382, carriers must train employees with respect to awareness and appropriate responses to passengers with a disability, including persons with physical, sensory, mental and emotional disabilities, including how to distinguish among the differing abilities of individuals with a disability. Additionally, airlines must promptly provide assistance requested by a customer with a disability in enplaning and deplaning. This assistance must include, as needed, the services of personnel and the use of ground wheelchairs, accessible motorized carts, boarding wheelchairs, and/or on-board wheelchairs, and ramps or mechanical lifts.

“We regret that a ramp was not requested so Ms. Purcell wold be able to board the aircraft without going up the stairs, assistance should should have been provided shortly thereafter. Based on what you’ve shared, it appears our employees didn’t provide the the attentive, courteous and professional service we expect as a company. I understand how the way you are treated can affect your impression of our” airline and sympathize with your displeasure.

“After review of the facts, American Airlines admits they were in violation of CFR 14 Part 382 for not having provided level entry boarding as requested.”

Purcell is a graduate of Farrington High School and a hip-hop artist who has recorded a CD and performed both here and on the mainland West Coast and in Las Vegas.

Ho told KHON2 Purcell is in a wheelchair because she suffers from what’s known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth’s disease.

Ho said Purcell’s mother died from the disease and Purcell herself was told she would not live past 18. She is now 33 years old.

In recounting the incident, Purcell said, “I just had to hold it together. Like I have to tell myself I won’t see these people again, just hurry up and get on the plane already… I don’t want them treating people like that at least nobody else.”

Ho said she is asking for $2.5 million in a settlement with the airline, but if it were to go to a jury in federal court, she would ask for between $6 million and $8 million.

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