United Airlines Pays $45m To Brain-Damaged Quadriplegic Passenger After ‘Violent’ Deplaning Caused Coma

Nathaniel "NJ" Foster Jr. suffered life-altering brain damage as a result of deplaning.

The quadriplegic man who was removed by United in a coma.

Image: Stoll Law

A disabled American traveller who was ‘aggressively’ deplaned by United Airlines staff has won a huge payout from the airline, but his life expectancy and brain function have suffered enormously.

While air travel can be full of unfortunate but humorous moments — such as a business class passenger urinating all over their cabin or a doctor caught joining the ‘one-man mile high club’ — far more serious incidents occasionally emerge. This tragic story is one such tale.

In a landmark decision, United Airlines has agreed to a settlement of $30 million USD (~$45 million AUD) with the family of Nathaniel “NJ” Foster Jr., a quadriplegic man who suffered life-altering brain damage as a result of a harrowing deplaning incident that has sparked discussions around passenger safety and the responsibilities of airlines in ensuring the well-being of all travellers.

Background of the Incident

On February 8th 2019, 26-year-old NJ Foster — who already relied on a wheelchair, ventilator, and tracheal tube — was disembarking a United Express flight from San Francisco to Monroe, Louisiana. The family, who were en route to a funeral, alleged that the deplaning process took a terrible turn when a ramp supervisor’s carelessness caused Mr Foster to sustain severe injuries, as reported by The Independent.

The Allegations

According to court filings and reports investigated by Reuters, Mr Foster’s family accused the ramp supervisor of forcefully pushing him during deplaning, leading his body to jerk forward and then suddenly fall backwards onto the floor. The family claimed this aggressive act caused catastrophic brain damage and left Mr Foster in a vegetative state, totally unable to speak, eat solid foods, or live independently, as revealed by Insider.

United Airlines plane taking off.
A United Airlines jet takes off from Zurich Airport. Image: Reuters

The Tragic Aftermath

On hearing Mr Foster whisper the words “I can’t breathe,” his mother — Pamela Foster — sought urgent medical assistance. His condition deteriorated rapidly, resulting in cardiac arrest. The incident led to a substantial decrease in Mr Foster’s life expectancy, with his already limited estimated lifespan of 39 years reduced even further to 31.5 years.

After more than four years of legal proceedings, a settlement of $30 million USD (~$45 million AUD) was reached between United Airlines and Mr Foster’s family. The settlement, which includes $12 million USD allocated for legal fees and $3 million USD to cover associated costs, is still pending final approval from a judge.

United said this in a statement about the settlement:

“Our top priority is to provide a safe journey for all our customers, especially those who require additional assistance or the use of a wheelchair… We are pleased to share that this matter has settled.”

United Airlines Spokesperson

Airlines’ Responsibility Towards Passengers

The United spokesperson is right that the airline has a paramount duty to ensure the safety and well-being of all passengers, especially those who require additional care, consideration and assistance. However, while the settlement brings a degree of closure for the Foster family, their advocacy for improved passenger care and safety continues.

This incident serves as a reminder to the aviation industry that ensuring passengers’ physical and emotional well-being is a fundamental responsibility, as well as the need for better training, awareness, and sensitivity when assisting passengers with unique needs.