‘I literally smashed into the airplane’: Lawsuits blame airport wheelchair service for injuries, death
Canada’s busiest airport is facing a string of lawsuits for injuries and even a death allegedly resulting from problems with wheelchair services.
A CBC News investigation has discovered that at least eight separate wheelchair travellers or their families have launched court fights against the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which runs Pearson International, as well as various airlines and contracted companies since 2011.
The suits allege wheelchair shortages, staff errors, poor training and other forms of negligence led to serious accidents, broken hips and even the death of one elderly traveller after a fall on an airport escalator.
“I think they took better care of my mom’s luggage than they did of my mom,” said John Becchetti of St. Catharines, Ont., whose 82-year-old mother Antonia died in October 2011 after she fell backwards and struck her head on an escalator in Terminal 3.
Becchetti and his brother Mauro are suing the airport, Air Transat and a wheelchair service company for $1.2 million. They claim their mother, who was travelling alone and spoke no English, was offered no help and left to walk unattended from the plane into the airport.
“It was on my mom’s travel ticket that she needed the assistance. I don’t know what more you can do,” Becchetti told CBC News.
The airport and the various airlines and contractors involved have denied the allegations in the eight lawsuits, one of which has been settled. None of the other allegations has been tested in court.
With 41 million travellers last year and tens of thousands of wheelchair requests every month, the Toronto airport has a huge logistical challenge.
The GTAA supplies the wheelchairs stationed around the airport but leaves airlines to either hire their own staff or use licensed contractors to assist passengers through the terminals.
Not enough wheelchairs
Mauro Becchetti was in the arrivals area at Pearson waiting for his mother to return from Italy when he received a phone call notifying him she’d fallen and struck her head.
“When I asked the person who brought her to us, I said she was supposed to be in a wheelchair,” Mauro told CBC News. “They said there were several flights that landed at the same time and there were no wheelchairs available.”
His mother died in hospital the next day from internal bleeding.
The defendants deny any negligence and in documents filed in court blame Antonia Becchetti for not waiting for assistance.
Isabell Mackie of Flin Flon, Man., says there were no wheelchairs available when she and her adult daughter arrived to board a WestJet flight home on June 16, 2012.
Mackie told CBC she feared missing her flight and was given the option to try to walk to board the plane on her own.
“It was very steep and I was having trouble and all of a sudden I just took off running and I hit the plane. I literally smashed into the airplane,” Mackie said. “I never would have fallen or got hurt … if I had of had a wheelchair.”
The GTAA and WestJet are fighting Mackie’s $2.25-million lawsuit and argue any injuries were caused by Mackie’s own actions. They deny that negligence caused her permanent knee and back injuries.
Forced to walk through scanner
In June 2014, Hassan Hemmati arranged wheelchair assistance to board a Turkish Airlines flight to Tehran, Iran.
In a $1-million lawsuit, he alleges he was wheeled up to a security checkpoint but was told by screening officials he’d have to walk through the metal detectors.
“He was holding the railing going in, which was very hard for him,” his daughter Zoreh Hemmati told CBC. “They asked him to take his belt off and all this stuff.”
The lawsuit alleges there was no wheelchair waiting for him on the other side of security and he fell and broke his hip.
The GTAA and Turkish Airlines have yet to file statements of defence.
80,000 requests a month
An internal GTAA memo obtained by CBC News says “Toronto Pearson receives approximately 80,000 requests for wheelchair assistance per month, more than most other major hub airports in North America.”
Clay Hunter, a lawyer who represents numerous airlines including Air Canada, which is named in three of the suits uncovered by CBC, wouldn’t discuss specific cases. But he says the airport is a busy and complicated place with a finite number of wheelchairs and attendants at any given time.
“I’ve seen flights with 20, 30, 40 passengers on board that need wheelchair assistance,” Hunter said in a telephone interview. “There might be five of those flights that arrive all at the same time.”
He says airline staff work hard to assist passengers when a wheelchair isn’t immediately available and may ask passengers whether they feel they are able to walk instead of waiting.
“Those individuals often make decisions, and they make the wrong decisions. But they make the decisions — ‘Yep, I’m good, I can walk.’ And they fall and then you have an issue — did they contribute to their own fall?”
Airport in ‘difficult situation’
The GTAA told CBC in a series of e-mailed statements that in 2015, after years of complaints, it decided to leave wheelchair attendant services to each of the 65 airlines that fly out of Pearson.
“Each airline is responsible for helping their passengers in terms of wheelchair service, and each airline has the opportunity to assist the passengers with their own staff or with a contractor of the airline’s choosing,” GTAA spokesperson Erin Kennedy said.
Michael Schmidt, a lawyer defending the GTAA in the seven remaining wheelchair lawsuits, wouldn’t discuss the cases.
However, he did say the GTAA is technically a landlord, likening it to a large mall that isn’t required to provide wheelchair services.
“But the airport is a complicated place with extra issues and security. So, the airport puts into place a service,” Schmidt told CBC.
He says it’s difficult trying to anticipate the ebb and flow of travellers.
“The GTAA kind of finds itself in a difficult situation,” Schmidt said. “It isn’t reasonable to have a hundred people standing behind a hundred wheelchairs waiting for Mrs. Smith to come to walk through the door. It probably isn’t reasonable to leave a bunch of wheelchairs in the corner.
“Finding the balance between those two issues is the hard spot.”