Airlines Sued For Death of Morbidly Obese Passenger

A New York man whose morbidly obese, wheelchair-bound wife died last year after she was denied a seat on three different flights home from Hungary sued the airlines on Monday for $6 million.

Vilma Soltesz, who was reported to have weighed 425 pounds, suffered from diabetes and had an amputated leg, news media said. She died at her vacation home in Hungary in October, 2012 after several airline crews repeatedly failed to accommodate her size despite initially telling her they could do so, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan. The suit accused the three airlines of wrongful death and gross negligence.

The couple flew from Manhattan in September on a Delta Air Lines plane, having purchased two seats for Vilma, and arrived safely in Budapest for a vacation, according to the lawsuit.

On October 2, Vilma Soltesz received treatment at a hospital in Hungary when she became ill, according to the lawsuit. She was released and told she could fly home to the U.S. but to see a doctor immediately upon her arrival. The couple attempted to leave Budapest two weeks later on a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight, with accommodations similar to what they had on their flight from the United States, according to the suit. But the captain told them to disembark after Soltesz was unable to maneuver from her wheelchair into her seats.

After waiting in the Budapest airport for more than five hours, the couple drove to Prague to catch a Delta flight they were assured could accommodate Vilma. But Delta did not have an adequate wheelchair to transport her to her seat, the suit added. “The Delta flight coordinator told Vilma that Delta ‘did not have access to a skylift’ to get Vilma onto the aircraft from the rear, and that there was nothing more Delta could do for them,” the lawsuit stated.

On October 22, as medics and firefighters helped her board a Lufthansa flight, the captain told the couple that they had to disembark because “other passengers need to catch a connecting flight and cannot be delayed further”. “Exhausted and feeling ill,” Vilma Soltesz took to bed after the couple drove back to their home in Veszprem. On October 24, she was found dead.

The suit raises the issue of a commerical airline’s obligation not only to accomodate travelers with critical medical conditions, but to deal with the morbidly obese. How long should a flight reasonably be delayed? Who is liable for losses suffered by other filers due to the delay? Who is responsible for the cost of transporting a morbidly obese passenger on to the plane? Is the airline liable if a flight is delayed and an ill or morbidly obese passenger suffers as a result?