Paralyzed veteran says he was injured, forced to drag himself on plane
THOMASVILLE – A paralyzed war veteran from Thomasville has launched a legal battle against United Airlines and Air Serv Corp. for injuries he sustained in a couple of incidents two years ago at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
An attorney for retired Army Sgt. Joseph Smith, who is also a former Marine, filed a lawsuit Tuesday morning in Chicago, claiming negligence against the two companies for their role in the Nov. 19, 2010 incidents. Smith and his wife, Debbi – a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit – say their suit is not so much about money as it is about justice for the disabled, who they say should never be treated the way Joey was two years ago.
“I’ve been in a war, and if (United and Air Serv) want a war, we can go to war,” the 42-year-old veteran said at his home Tuesday morning. “Money is not what this is about. It’s about getting things changed for the disabled, because I don’t want this to ever happen to anybody else.”
The incidents occurred during a layover at O’Hare as Smith was flying from Charlotte to Colorado Springs, Colo., to participate in a training event with Team Semper Fi, a shooting team for injured Marines.
When Smith’s United flight arrived in Chicago, Smith – who was paralyzed from the waist down eight years ago while deployed in Afghanistan – allowed an Air Serv employee to push his wheelchair out the door of the plane. Smith contends he warned the employee of a slight gap between the plane and the jetway ramp, but when a front wheel of the wheelchair got stuck in the gap, the employee kept pushing, causing Smith to topple out of his wheelchair and strike the side of his head on the floor.
“Because of my TBI (traumatic brain injury, also suffered when he was paralyzed), I have slow reflexes and couldn’t catch myself,” Smith said, adding that the impact caused a headache and dizziness.
According to Smith, he was helped back into his wheelchair, but no one offered medical assistance or even asked if he was OK.
A few minutes later, Smith said, as he was boarding his connecting flight, he told Air Serv employees and United flight attendants he would need an aisle chair – a specially designed chair for transporting disabled passengers down the narrow aisle of a plane – because his wheelchair was too wide. No aisle chair was provided, however, and Smith ended up having to get out of his wheelchair and scoot down the aisle on his rear end, he said. Doing so caused his catheter bag to rupture, spilling urine on him, he said.
Two of Smith’s fellow Marines, who were already on the plane – and thus didn’t see what was happening to Smith until he had already started scooting – rushed to help him to his seat, but not before the catheter bag broke, Smith said.
“I had urine all over me, so I tried covering myself up,” Smith recalled. “People were staring at me – it was humiliating.”
Smith said he arrived in Colorado Springs with a pounding headache that hospitalized him for the better part of two days.
“They did a CAT scan and an MRI,” he said. “They were afraid my head was bleeding internally, because I’m on Coumadin (a blood thinner). The doctor said I had a severe concussion and that I might have nerve damage.”
On his return flight, which also went through O’Hare, executives from United, Air Serv and the airport met with Smith and tried to get him to sign some sort of document, he claims, but he refused to sign it. The executives treated him very rudely, especially after he refused to sign, he added.
In the two years since the incidents at O’Hare, Smith has yet to receive an apology, he said. He was offered a $20,000 settlement at one point, he said, but that’s not even enough to cover his nearly $30,000 hospital bill.
Smith said he wants enough money to pay his hospital bill and legal fees, and any additional money he might get would be donated to several military-related charities.
United Airlines spokeswoman Christen David said she could not comment on the Smiths’ lawsuit, other than to issue the following statement: “Our preliminary review does not corroborate Mr. Smith’s version of events.”
A call to Air Serv’s corporate office in Atlanta Tuesday was not returned.
The Smiths’ Chicago attorney, Alexander Hattimer Loftus, said the case intrigued him, “because it’s rare we get to use the court system to fix a moral wrong.”
The Smiths say they just want their day in court, on behalf of other disabled individuals.
“We’re not the kind of people to sue, like the lady that sued McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot,” Debbi Smith said. “Our purpose is just to make sure this doesn’t happen again to anybody else.”
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