August 14, 2003
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that front-row seating for wheelchair-bound viewers at six movie theaters violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, reversing a lower district court's dismissal of the case.
The movie theaters, run by Tennessee-based Regal Cinemas and Eastgate Theatre Inc., had stadium-style seats on steps rather than on a sloped floor. The wheelchair-accessible seating was located on the first few rows, forcing wheelchair users to look up at greater - and more painful - angles than other moviegoers.
"We find it simply inconceivable that this arrangement should constitute 'full and equal enjoyment' of movie theater services," Judge Betty Fletcher wrote in the majority opinion.
Fletcher also noted that anyone sitting in the wheelchair accessible areas had to look up an average of 42 degrees, compared to an average of 20 degrees for other seats in the house.
In the dissenting opinion, Judge Andrew Kleinfeld argued that this decision, applied retroactively, would mean that movie theater owners would suddenly find themselves out of step with the law. That might require them to destroy facilities that were built according to past regulations.
"If a judge on a panel cannot say what is required, how can a movie theater owner?" Judge Kleinfeld wrote. "It is irresponsible to impose on the country a decision that will require of an industry so much reconstruction, without clear guidance of what must be done."
Kathleen Wilde, the attorney representing Oregon residents Kathy Stewson, Tina Smith and Kathy Braddy, said the plaintiffs submitted extensive data that calculated the average viewing angle for the general public. She said wheelchair-bound patrons should expect the same viewing experience.
Stewson, a plaintiff who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, told the court, "Sitting in the front row, so close to the screen, the screen was so huge that I couldn't focus on it."
"I found myself losing the story because I was working so hard to watch the screen," Stewson said.
Before the case came before the 9th Circuit, a federal district court judge had sided with the defendants and dismissed the suit.
The case is Stewson vs. Regal Cinemas, Inc., 00-00485-KI.
Copyright © 2003, Southwestern Oregon Publishing Company