(NEW YORK) — The death of a 407-pound woman after being denied boarding on three flights was “preventable,” according to an attorney for the woman’s husband, who plans to pursue legal action against three airlines.
Vilma Soltesz, 56, died of kidney failure on Oct. 24 in Hungary, where she and her husband, Janos Soltesz, took an annual vacation to a home they owned in their native country, said Soltesz’ attorney, Holly Ostrov-Ronai.
Vilma, who had health problems, had been trying to get back to the United States, where she could see her doctors, Ostrov-Ronai said.
The couple flew from New York City to Budapest by way of Amsterdam on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Vilma, who had one leg, got on the flight with the help of an airlift, and used a seatbelt extender when seated, Ostrov-Ronai said, adding that the couple had “no issues at all.”
“KLM asked them when they would be flying home so that they could make proper arrangements,” Ostrov-Ronai wrote in an email to ABC News.
When the couple went to the airport on Oct. 15 to board a KLM night flight home to New York, they were able to board. However, Ostrov-Ronai said that the captain asked Vilma to disembark because she could not be secured in her seat due to an issue with a seat back.
“There was simply no legitimate reason in this instance for denying her boarding or forcing her to disembark,” Ostrov-Ronai said. “Their failure to make simple accommodations, that had been made prior, led to Vilma’s death. This is not best efforts in any regard.”
In a statement, KLM said “every effort” was made to help Vilma.
The couple waited at the airport for five hours while the airline made calls to find an alternative to accommodate her.
They were advised to drive to Prague, where they could catch a “bigger plane” operated by Delta Airlines. When they arrived, Ostrov-Ronai said, the couple was told that Delta only had a plastic wheelchair that could not handle Vilma’s weight and that there was no sky lift available to get her onto the plane.
Delta spokesman Russel Cason offered the airline’s “sincere condolences” for Vilma’s passing.
“Despite a determined good-faith effort by Delta in Prague, we were also physically unable to board her on our aircraft on Oct. 16. For this reason there was never an issue with the use of seat belt extenders,” he said.
The couple drove back to their home in Hungary and made another effort, this time through Lufthansa, to get back to the United States. When they boarded, they were forced to disembark by the captain, Ostrov-Ronai said, because Vilma was unable to fasten her seatbelt properly.
The airline said it worked with local partners, the fire brigade and technical experts to accommodate Vilma, but to no avail.
“After several time-consuming attempts it was decided that for the safety of this passenger and the over 140 fellow passengers, Lufthansa had to deny transportation of the passenger,” said a statement issued by the airline. “In order to avoid further delays which would have resulted in missed connections and severe inconvenience for other customers on board, this decision was unavoidable.”
Two days later, Vilma died.
“They passed these people around from airline to airline and treated them with no dignity whatsoever, simply because they didn’t want to deal with the situation,” Ostrov-Ronai said.
She said Janos plans to pursue a lawsuit against the three airlines that denied his wife passage home, where she desperately needed medical treatment.
“Janos is heartbroken,” Ostrov-Ronai said. “The only thing that keeps him going day to day is that he wants justice for what was done to Vilma and to try to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in the future.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN