Wheelchair-bound passenger sues American for forcing her to crawl to her seat

American Airlines is being sued by a wheelchair-bound woman who claims she was forced to crawl to her seat.

American Airlines is being sued by a wheelchair-bound woman who claims she was forced to crawl to her seat.  (AP Photo)

A wheelchair-bound woman is suing American Airlines, claiming that the carrier forced her to crawl to her seat in the middle of the plane after not providing an access ramp.

Theresa Purcell suffers from a bone disease that leaves her with limited mobility.  She told KHON 2 that she flies regularly due to her work as a hip hop artist. Since this was the first time she flew American, Purcell says she told the gate agent in San Diego she would need assistance before boarding. But when it was time to get on the plane, the passenger says she was told it was too late to set up an access ramp.

“There was a ramp right next to the plane and she was like, ‘Oh, it’s too late,’ so I was like ‘Okay, so we can’t just, the ramp is right there. Can’t you guys just push it right here so I can get on?’ and she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,” Purcell told KHON 2.

With no other options, the passenger said she had to get out of her wheelchair and crawl to reach her assigned seat.

“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.”

After the incident, Purcell received the following statement apology from Christy Garden, Department of Travel Liaison, Customer Relations, American Airlines/US Airways Corporate Office:

"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. We regret that a ramp was not requested so Ms. Purcell would be able to board the aircraft without going up the stairs, assistance should have been provided shortly thereafter. Based on what you have shared, it appears our employees didn’t provide the the attentive, courteous and professional service we expect as a company."

But the apology was not enough. Purcell hired an attorney who wrote a the letter asking for compensation and received the following statement, obtained by KHON 2:

“Thank you for your letter of demand on behalf of Theresa Purcell. American Airlines will not be issuing any compensation for your client’s injuries claim.”

“I was humiliated. I mean, it was embarrassing to have 50-something people watch you crawl into a plane,” Purcell said. “You wouldn’t want to watch your family member crawl on to a plane. I mean, come on, this is America, I’m just saying there’s always a way.”

Purcell is now suing American Airlines under the Air Carrier Access Act, which protects people with disabilities seeking $75,000 in general damages, plus punitive damages.  The incident comes just weeks after the airline admitted failing to comply with procedure for denying a cancer patient access to a wheelchair after it was requested.

Purcell says she hopes the suit will prevent any other disabled passengers from suffering the same humiliation. contacted American Airlines regarding the incident but have yet to receive a comment.