Wheels of Injustice: Lawsuit Exposes Airline’s Damage
of Passenger's Vital Wheelchair
December 4, 2023
Editor’s Note: In a recent lawsuit against Frontier Airlines, Shannon O’Brien exposes the plight of wheelchair users during air travel. O’Brien, who has spinal muscular atrophy, faced a 12-hour ordeal after her wheelchair was lost and damaged. The lawsuit not only seeks damages but also draws attention to the systemic issue of mishandled wheelchairs, affecting over 7,600 individuals as of August 2023. This legal action aims to prompt change for those with mobility challenges, addressing the broader concerns surrounding accessibility in air travel.
For Shannon O’Brien, her wheelchair is essential to her independence.
She filed a lawsuit last month against Frontier Airlines for temporarily losing her custom mechanized wheelchair, and then returning it damaged days later.
“My wheelchair is my legs. Without that, I can’t be independent or successful. The only times that I’m out of my chair are when I’m sleeping, showering or on an airplane,” Shannon, 35, said recently at a news conference. “There’s no other form of transportation where I’m required to be removed from my chair.”
Shannon has spinal muscular atrophy, which affects motor neurons in the spinal cord and limits her mobility. She is unable to walk or hold her head and upper body straight while sitting without the support of her wheelchair.
Shannon says she is taking action to make air travel more accessible for everyone.
“I’m doing this not just on behalf of myself, but so no one else has to go through this,” she said.
On Nov. 26, 2022, Shannon boarded a flight from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, to Chicago, and was required to check her wheelchair. When a mid-flight malfunction forced an emergency landing in Orlando, she was held on the plane for more than an hour waiting for the wheelchair before being told it could not be retrieved.
Other passengers were told the source of their delay was because “a lady in a wheelchair can’t get off the plane,” according to her attorney.
Shannon was without her wheelchair for the 12-hour delay in Orlando, experiencing pain without the physical support it provides. The next day, she flew home to Chicago, and was told the wheelchair would be on the flight with her, only to find upon landing that it was still in Orlando.
Until the wheelchair was returned on Nov. 28, 2022, Shannon could not leave her bed, and when it was delivered, she found it had been damaged. This kind of custom mechanized chair can cost between $30,000 and $80,000, according to her attorney.
A spokesperson for Frontier Airlines said Shannon was provided with contact information to reach out with further concerns or issues, and the airline has not heard from her since November 2022.
“We wish to again extend our apologies to Ms. O’Brien and her family for the significant inconvenience caused by the temporary absence of her wheelchair,” the spokesperson said. “We had multiple team members working to reunite her with her chair and ultimately placed it on another airline to get it to her as quickly as possible.”
The lawsuit seeks damages for physical and emotional injuries as a result of Frontier Airlines’ alleged negligence. But Shannon and her lawyer emphasized that her experience is not unique.
As of this August, more than 7,600 wheelchairs and scooters have been mishandled on flights, according to consumer reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Lance Northcutt, Shannon’s attorney, said while legislators such as U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois are picking up the cause, legislation can be a slow process.
“If change has to happen on an individual basis, it will,” he said. “On behalf of Shannon O’Brien, that change is going to begin in a courtroom in Cook County now.”