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Appeals court revives wheelchair lawsuit vs. United Airlines

A logo is pictured on a wall during a news conference announcing the merger between Continental Airlines and United Airlines in New York, Ma
A logo is pictured on a wall during a news conference announcing the merger between Continental Airlines and United Airlines in New York, Ma

By Dan Levine

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An appeals court on Tuesday revived a lawsuit against United Airlines that was brought by a woman who claimed she was not promptly provided a wheelchair in an airport when she asked for one.

The opinion, from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, said federal law did not pre-empt the woman's personal injury claims under state law. In an email, United spokeswoman Jennifer Dohm said the airline "is strongly committed to providing equal treatment and quality service to our disabled customers."

United Airlines is a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc.

Mark Meuser, an attorney for plaintiff Michelle Gilstrap, who has difficulty walking, said some lower court judges had disagreed about whether individuals should be able to bring claims for damages suffered in an airplane or terminal.

"This is a really big deal for disabled Americans across the country," Meuser said.

Gilstrap had difficulty walking due to a collapsed disc in her back and osteoarthritis, according to the court opinion. During two separate plane trips in 2008 and 2009, she alleged that United failed to supply a wheelchair on some occasions.

She also said United agents yelled at her, doubted whether she really needed a wheelchair and ordered her to stand in line, which she could not do because of her condition.

Gilstrap sued, and a Los Angeles federal judge dismissed her case. In Tuesday's three-judge ruling, the 9th Circuit said Gilstrap could not pursue her claims under the Americans for Disabilities Act.

However, the court ruled that Gilstrap's state law claims, including emotional distress and negligence, were not pre-empted by the Air Carrier Access Act. The appeals court remanded the case for further proceedings.

The case in the 9th Circuit is Michelle Gilstrap vs. United Air Lines Inc., 11-55271.

(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Matthew Lewis)

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