Family of woman struck by lightning sues Columbia airport, American Airlines

Sonya Dockett.
Sonya Dockett.

The husband of a woman who was forced out of an airplane at Columbia Metropolitan Airport as a thunderstorm approached last year is suing the airport, American Airlines and US Airways, alleging the woman died after being struck by lightning on the tarmac.

“Common sense should have informed those in charge not to send passengers onto an open tarmac in the rain as a dangerous storm approached,” said Ken Suggs, a Columbia attorney who filed suit in the case.

The woman, Sonya Dockett, 52, a Connecticut attorney, civic leader, philanthropist and mother of two, on June 27 was flying with her family from Connecticut to Kentucky, where the daughter was playing in a basketball game. The plane diverted to Columbia from its intended layover in Charlotte because of thunderstorms in the area, according to the lawsuit.

Passengers sat on the plane for 45 minutes in Columbia before they were ordered off the plane, even as thunderstorms approached, the lawsuit said.

Dockett was running from the plane to the concourse when she was struck by lightning in full view of her son, the lawsuit said. Dockett collapsed and was carried unconscious and suffering from burns into the terminal, the lawsuit said.

She died of her injuries Aug. 5 in Connecticut after more than a month of “living hell” for the family, her husband, Anthony Nwachukwu, told The State newspaper on Tuesday.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the family,” American Airlines said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “We will address the litigation in the proper venues, not in the media.”

Efforts to reach officials from Columbia Metropolitan Airport on Tuesday were unsuccessful. US Airways merged with American Airlines in October 2015.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Lexington County circuit court, seeks unspecified damages for alleged failure to take safety precautions to eliminate the risk of injury to passengers from storms or lightning.

“Were it not for the defendants’ reckless disregard for the safety of passengers aboard US Airways Flight 5137, Sonya would be alive today, standing at her husband’s side, cheering for her children, and supporting the many good causes she was known for,” Suggs said.

Joseph Dwyer, a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire who has studied lightning for 15 years, said he could not comment on the specifics of the accident without knowing all the facts.

But, he said, it is generally unsafe to be outside during a thunderstorm. Enclosed structures such as homes or buildings provide the safest shelter, he said. But aircraft typically are designed to withstand a lightning strike, he said.

Dockett’s death rocked her family and the Hartford, Conn., community where they live, her husband said. Dockett’s 18-year-old son’s grades have plummeted, and her 14-year-old daughter cries herself to sleep most nights, Nwachukwu said.

“It’s a huge loss,” he said.

Dockett was a former in-house counsel and vice president of a Connecticut health care company. She was a skillful and passionate fundraiser for the dozen or so organizations and nonprofits who still mourn her absence, friends and family said.

She was one of the chief fundraisers for the Avon Free Public Library near Hartford, which soon will install a memorial plaque in her honor, said library director Glenn Grube. “She was very intelligent and well-spoken,” Grube said. “She was always extremely friendly and gracious. We were devastated when we heard what happened.”

Nwachukwu said Dockett’s philanthropic spirit stemmed from her upbringing in the public housing projects of Detroit, Mich.

After Dockett’s mother and only parent died of a drug overdose when she was 6, Dockett was raised by her grandmother, Nwachukwu said. Excellent grades were Dockett’s ticket out of Detroit and to a private college in Maine, and then to the University of Maryland School of Law.

Still, she never forgot the teachers and community members who helped her along, he said. The family has vowed to continue her efforts with scholarships and internships in her honor.

But Nwachukwu, originally from Nigeria, said he struggles to think about his future. Dockett was his only family in America, he said.

“How do you replace that kind of memory?” he said. “It was a very close relationship.”