Tammy Spears is the Idaho woman who says she was dragged, pushed and ultimately forced to crawl on the floor to reach the bathroom during a cross-country American Airlines flight after crew members failed to ensure the aircraft was equipped with an aisle wheelchair, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Utah.
Spears, whose left leg was amputated below the knee in 2018, says she and her family took the necessary steps to inform American Airlines about her disability four days before the flight. In a phone interview with Heavy, Spears’ attorney, Diane Marger Moore, said the airline has never disputed her client’s claims about what happened.
But Moore explained that the airline’s representative denied that the company was legally responsible. “We are very concerned about how she was treated and how other disabled people are treated on American Airlines,” Moore said. “We do think she’s entitled to compensation for what they did to her. But in a broader sense, we want this to stop. We can’t allow our disabled people to be treated like this.” Spears and her family listed both American Airlines and CheapOAir in the lawsuit.
Heavy reached out to American Airlines for comment. We received this statement via email:
We take the safety and comfort of our customers very seriously and we’re committed to providing a positive experience for everyone who travels with us. We have been in contact with Ms. Spears and her family on multiple occasions, and we will address the allegations in the lawsuit in due course.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Spears Said American Airlines Recommended She Fly From Salt Lake City Because the Airport Could Best Accommodate Her Disability
Spears has been using a wheelchair to get around since she had surgery to remove her left leg below the knee in June 2018. According to the law firm representing her, Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, Spears’ leg had to be amputated due to an ongoing medical condition. The firm says although Spears does have limited vision, she is legally blind.
Spears and her husband live in Jerome, Idaho, but they have family members that live on the east coast. A year after her surgery, Spears decided to buy a ticket to visit her sister in Virginia.
Before purchasing a ticket through CheapOAir, Spears and her son communicated with American Airlines. According to the federal complaint, the airline advised Spears to leave from Salt Lake City, Utah, and get a connecting flight in Charlotte, North Carolina. The company representative advised Spears that “only certain aircraft carried in-flight aisle (wheel) chairs and recommended those flights between Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina that would accommodate her disability.” Spears’ flight was scheduled for August 10.
On August 6, four days before her flight, Spears said she contacted American Airlines again to remind the company that she would need an onboard wheelchair in order to access the bathroom. She and her husband also alerted the TSA to her needs. While at the Salt Lake City International Airport, TSA agents helped Spears get to her gate. The federal complaint also notes that Spears was wearing clothing “that permitted the American Airlines, Salt Lake City, gate agents to see that she had only one leg.” When it was time to board the plane, Spears said American Airlines employees used an aisle chair to help her get seated on the plane “without incident.”
2. Flight Attendants Told Spears She’d Either Have to Hop On Her Other Leg Or Scoot Down the Aisle to the Lavatory After Realizing the Aircraft Didn’t Have an Aisle Chair
About an hour into the flight, Spears told a flight attendant she needed to use the restroom. The crew member went to look for the aisle chair but it was not onboard. Spears’ legal team wrote in the complaint that the airline “negligently, carelessly and recklessly failed to load an aisle wheelchair onto American Airlines Flight 2905 notwithstanding its notice and knowledge that its passenger, Tammy Spears, had one leg amputated and needed to be, and was, boarded with an aisle wheelchair and would foreseeably need the use of an aisle chair during the flight.”
Spears said the flight attendant told her she’d either have to hold it or get to the bathroom without the chair. According to the complaint, Spears said several crew members tried to help lift her out of her seat but she fell on the floor. She said they advised that she hop on her right leg, but Spears said she was “exhausted from the effort to get out of her seat” and was “unable to comply.”
At this point, Spears was told to scoot herself up the aisle on the floor. Flight attendants and at least one passenger tried to help by “pushing and pulling her.” She then needed additional assistance to stand up once she reached the bathroom. Spears’ attorney said her client felt humiliated because she was aware of the other passengers watching her as she attempted to make it to the bathroom.
3. Spears Said Crew Members Disrobed Her In Front of Multiple Passengers & Forced Her to Keep the Bathroom Door Open
The bathroom Spears was directed to was in the first-class section of the aircraft. According to the complaint, the flight attendants “began to disrobe” Spears in front of the other passengers and Spears shared that she had been “too humiliated and exhausted, and her need had become too urgent, to resist.” She claimed the crew “insisted” that she keep the bathroom door open while she used it.
Spears didn’t think she had the strength to make it back to her seat. According to her legal team, the crew members made a plan to drag Spears back to her seat along the floor by sitting her “on a flat of some kind.” Before this method could be implemented, another passenger offered to switch seats with her and allow Spears to sit in first-class.
According to the complaint, Spears struggled to breathe during the struggle to the bathroom. Her blood pressure had also skyrocketed “off the charts,” her attorney explained to Heavy. A passenger, who was also a nurse, monitored Spears for the rest of the flight. Spears was also given supplemental oxygen.
4. Lawsuit: Spears Struggled to Breathe & Suffered Physical Injuries & Emotional Distress
Spears said she suffered direct physical injuries as a result of her being dragged up the aisle of the plane on the floor. The complaint noted that she “suffered burns, strains, pain, swelling, bruising and suffering to her leg and foot, stump, arm and derrière each of which were sore, aching, throbbing, and otherwise injured and hurting.” In a news release, her lawyers explained Spears also experienced emotional distress and continued to suffer from nightmares and anxiety since that flight.
According to the complaint, American Airlines employees and medical professionals evaluated Spears once the flight landed in Charlotte and used an aisle chair to get her off the plane. She was then taken to a separate room where Spears said she was “interrogated about the incident.” She claimed airline employees denied fault and “further embarrassed” her before allowing her to leave for her connecting flight.
Spears and her legal team have sued American Airlines and CheapOAir for negligence. American Airlines was also accused of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Spears’ attorneys are asking for a jury trial and damages “in an amount in excess of $75,000.”
5. American Airlines’ Website States Onboard Wheelchairs Are Available With Advanced Notice
Spears spoke with CBS affiliate KMVT-TV about one month after the American Airlines flight to Virginia. She said that a flight attendant told her they had forgotten to put the aisle wheelchair on the plane. According to the TV station, the airline said at the time that they had not received advance notice that Spears needed an aisle wheelchair. The statement from the airline read:
Airlines must equip aircraft that have more than 60 passenger seats with accessible lavatories with an on-board wheelchair. The airline may require passengers to provide an advance notice to receive this accommodation. The information I received from the flight attendants on your flight say an advanced notice was not received.
American Airlines told Heavy that the company had spoken with Spears “on multiple occasions” and that her allegations would be addressed “in due course.” The media relations representative also sent Heavy a link to the airline’s web page about special assistance on flights. The page dedicated to mobility notes that wheelchair assistance is available upon request:
Please let a gate or Reservation agent know if you need onboard wheelchair assistance during your trip. Flight attendants can provide assistance in transfers between your seat and an onboard wheelchair, and in moving the onboard wheelchair to and from the lavatory door.
Spears purchased her plane ticket through CheapOAir. A representative for the parent company, Fareportal, told the Dallas Morning News in a prepared statement, “We sympathize with Ms. Spears experience, but the conversation in this regard must be between her and the airline.”