As the American Airlines plane full of passengers looked on, two law enforcement officers escorted Michael Mennella — a double amputee with no feet — down the aisle and into the airport. They told him he was under arrest for extreme intoxication. But soon enough, the officers realized Mennella was sober. He'd simply hobbled down the aisle to ask for a drink on a flight that departed Miami without the wheelchair the airline had promised him.
That's what Mennella, a businessman traveling for work, claims in a new lawsuit that's sure to fuel more anger at airlines for horribly mistreating their passengers.
"As demonstrated by police-administered field tests, and as revealed in an official field report, Mr. Mennella was not intoxicated," says the suit, filed in federal court in Miami. "Instead, he was an innocent victim of AA's brutish misconduct."
In an emailed statement, American Airlines declined to comment on the specifics of Mennella's case but said it is committed to providing a positive and safe travel experience to all of its customers and looks forward to addressing his concerns.
Mennella's ordeal began August 28, 2016, when he arrived at Miami International Airport and discovered that American had not reserved a wheelchair he requested. A Florida resident, he was headed to Las Vegas with some colleagues for a conference.
Since losing his feet in a car accident six years ago, Mennella has sought assistance boarding flights. When American Airlines told him no wheelchair was available for the flight to Vegas, he was forced to struggle down the jet bridge, which caused pain to flare up in his legs.
Mennella asked for water to take his medicine, the lawsuit says, but a flight attendant refused. After asking several times, he walked on his stumps to the back of the plane to ask another attendant for help. His request went ignored, and he struggled back to his seat.
American Airlines personnel told passengers seated near Mennella, including his colleagues, that he was "a drunk" and that the plane was being diverted to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The airline had told airport police that Mennella was "intoxicated to the point of needing medical attention," according to a police report included in the lawsuit.
"The law enforcement officers proceeded to tell Mr. Mennella that he was being arrested for a felony due to his intoxication, and that the severity of his crime merited a lengthy incarceration," the lawsuit says.
But once the officers began speaking with Mennella, they concluded he was not under the influence of any kind of substance, police reports indicate. He was released and had to arrange for a different flight to Las Vegas.
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Mennella's suit claims American defamed him and damaged his reputation by calling him a drunk and taking him off the plane. It also argues the airline's actions were negligent.
In an email included in the lawsuit, an American Airlines customer service representative told Mennella that the flight had to be diverted due to his "disruptive and unruly behavior" and lewd language and that the pilot made the decision "for the safety of all passengers."
"We believe our pilot made the correct decision in this situation," the email said, "and we apologize if you feel otherwise."