Did an Airline’s Refusal to Fly a Heavy Woman Cause Her Death?

Who's to blame when an obese passenger dies while waiting to fly home for medical treatment?

seatbeltNoma Bar for Reader's Digest On September 17, 2012, Bronx, New York, couple Janos and Vilma Soltesz flew from New York City to Budapest, Hungary, where they spent the next several weeks at their vacation home in Veszprém. It wasn’t easy for Vilma to travel—she weighed more than 400 pounds, and her left leg had been amputated above the knee. She’d purchased two seats for herself and informed the airline, Lufthansa, of her condition in advance, since she required a special lift to get into the cabin.

When the couple, both in their mid-50s, boarded their return flight via KLM airlines on October 15, they discovered that the backs of two seats in Vilma’s row were broken, and she couldn’t maneuver into her spot. Employees did not offer different seats but instead spoke to the captain, who told the Solteszes that they had to get off the plane.

The couple waited in the airport for five hours. The delay was worrisome to them—Vilma had been feeling ill since October 2, and her physician in New York wanted to examine her as soon as they returned. Finally, the airline informed them that they’d be flying out on Delta, KLM’s partner, the following day from Prague, in the Czech Republic, a four-hour drive away. KLM assured Janos that Delta had been made aware of the assistance that Vilma would need to board the plane there.

The next day, the couple drove to the Prague airport, but when they tried to board the plane, they realized that Delta didn’t have an adequate wheelchair or lift to aid Vilma. The couple drove four hours back to their vacation home and called their travel agent, who booked three seats on a Lufthansa flight from Prague to New York on October 22. With help from Lufthansa medics and local firefighters, Vilma was nearly seated on the plane when the captain emerged from the cockpit and told the couple to disembark, claiming that Vilma was delaying other passengers. It took 30 minutes to get Vilma off the plane. The Solteszes returned again to their vacation home. Two days later, Janos found his wife dead in her bed.

In January 2013, Janos sued the three airlines for $6 million, claiming “wrongful death.” Lufthansa’s attorney, Michael Holland, sent a letter to the New York district court judge in February, asking to dismiss the case, since it didn’t qualify as an accident under the Montreal Convention, a 1999 international treaty that governs airline liability. According to the treaty, which has been clarified by the Supreme Court, a passenger can recover damages only if the injuries were caused by “an unexpected or unusual event … external to the passenger.” Holland claimed that the accident wasn’t “external,” because the “[d]ecedent’s own health condition rendered her unable to travel safely.”

The Verdict: In a March 2013 letter to the judge, Janos’s attorney, Holly Ostrov Ronai, disagreed with Holland, arguing that despite being informed in advance of Vilma’s condition, the airlines not only failed to have the proper equipment available but also “caused Ms. Soltesz to repeatedly board [and] disembark, travel from airline to airline, travel to another airport, and even travel to another country, which caused her medical condition to worsen.”

The judge agreed, and the case never made it to court. In August 2013, the airlines settled for an undisclosed amount. “It’s quite sad,” says Ronai. “They wanted to get home. They just wanted to get home.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest