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Family of Charleston native suing airline over death

The family of a man who grew up in Charleston is suing United Airlines less than two years after he died while on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Japan.

Zachary Ryan Steenstra’s family filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia on July 1. U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis III is presiding in the case.

Steenstra, a graduate of Capital High School and Marshall University, was 37 years old when he suffered a health emergency on the flight. The airline refused to divert the flight to allow him to receive medical attention, despite him begging airline staff to do so, according to the lawsuit. That led to what his parents say was his preventable death 10 days later at a hospital in Tokyo.

“United could have saved his life with less than a one hour delay. It will haunt me for the rest of my life to imagine the lack of empathy he endured and the blatant disregard for his life and well-being,” Steenstra’s mother, Sharon Roon, said in a statement released by her attorneys. “I am heartbroken and will never recover from the loss of my kind, thoughtful and brilliant son Zachary.”

Steenstra’s family alleges United Airlines was negligent and led to Steenstra’s wrongful death. They are seeking unspecified damages.

According to the lawsuit, Steenstra was “an athlete in good health” who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice. He was flying for work from Washington to Bangkok, with a connecting flight at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

He became ill about three hours into the flight, experiencing severe pain and vomiting blood after he’d eaten his in-flight meal, according to the complaint.

“Zachary was in great pain and knew his condition was serious,” his lawyers, Susan L. Burke of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and John H. Tinney Jr. of Charleston said in the lawsuit. “United provided no medical evaluation or treatment.”

Steenstra “begged” United employees to divert the flight and land to let him get medical treatment, but employees refused to land the airplane during the 13-hour flight, according to the lawsuit. By the time it landed in Japan, Steenstra “had vomited so much blood, was so weak and so grave, he could not walk or crawl from the plane,” the lawsuit stated.

Steenstra was taken from the plane to a hospital that didn’t have the facilities to adequately treat him, his family claims, then was transferred to a trauma hospital.

Doctors at the second hospital determined Steenstra’s esophagus either had ruptured or separated from his stomach, and due to the delay in care, he suffered sepsis, according to the lawsuit.

Steenstra died on Dec. 15, 2017, according to his obituary.

Reach Lacie Pierson at

lacie.pierson@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow

@laciepierson on Twitter.

Funerals for Friday, August 23, 2019

Boggess, Robert - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Conway, Blanch - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Marker, Geraldine - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Pritt, Charles - 1 p.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Quehe, Ryker - Noon, Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Warren, Joyce - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.