Activist's Family Sues Over His Wheelchair Death

BOSTON -- A wheelchair company and its technicians are to blame for the death of a disability advocate who died after his wheelchair malfunctioned during routine repairs, breaking his leg under a tabletop and causing him to suffer seizures, according to a lawsuit brought by the man's family.

The suit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court by the parents of quadriplegic Jeffrey Thompson, seeks $10 million in damages against National Seating & Mobility Inc. His Boston family went to court after the company refused to consider a $1 million settlement offer, lawyer Jonathon Friedmann said.

The suit alleges that the repair technicians were improperly trained and should have removed Thompson from the wheelchair and disconnected its battery before starting repairs. A spokesman for the Tennessee-based company said it would not comment on pending litigation.

Jeffrey Thompson was 29 when he died, 12 years after being paralyzed in a car crash in which a high school friend was driving, his father, Charles Thompson, said. He went on to attend college and advocated for changes that made public transportation in Massachusetts more accessible for the disabled.

Thompson, who lived with his parents, was home alone on Dec. 10, 2007, when two repairmen from the Boston-area office of National Seating & Mobility arrived to perform maintenance on the electrical wiring of the wheelchair, the family said.

Thompson was sitting in the chair when it malfunctioned and abruptly "jumped," causing his legs to become pinned under the table he was sitting at, the lawsuit claims. Thompson suffered a broken leg, according to his father, and the lawsuit said he went into "uncontrollable seizures" after the accident.

The repairmen first called Thompson's personal care assistant, who instructed them to call an ambulance, Friedmann said. He was taken to a hospital, where he died the following day.

The two repairmen had not been to the home before, and Charles Thompson said a previous technician had always removed Jeffrey from the wheelchair and placed him in another at the home before starting maintenance. The wheelchair cost about $15,000, he said.

Bill Noelting, chief information officer and vice president of marketing for National Seating & Mobility, said the 18-year-old firm is America's largest provider of high-end, custom wheelchairs and seating systems.

He also said that all of the company's repair technicians are certified by RESNA, the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America, and must pass a test to work for the firm.

Friedmann said he was not aware of any similar complaints against the company or any involving the type of wheelchair Jeffrey Thompson used.

Thompson's father said any proceeds from the litigation would go to a foundation set up in his son's name to help those with similar disabilities.

The younger Thompson lobbied Boston officials to upgrade aging brick sidewalks in the city's South End neighborhood that he said were hazardous for wheelchair travel.

His frequent frustration with using public transit also led to his involvement in a class-action lawsuit that eventually resulted in the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority agreeing to spend more than $310 million to upgrade station elevators, platforms, buses and take other steps to improve accessibility for disabled riders.

"He wanted to be mobile, he wanted to be independent," Charles Thompson said. "It was part of trying to become independent for himself that he became an advocate."