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Court rules on stadium-style movie theaters.

In August 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled movie theaters cannot limit wheelchair users to only front-row seating areas. This important case (Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America v. Regal Cinemas, Inc.) was originally brought in April 2000 in the U.S. District Court in Oregon by the Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America (OPVA) and three wheelchair users. This decision is in direct conflict with Lara v. Cinemark USA, Inc., a case decided in April 2000 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

OPVA's suit was against two chains operating movie theaters in Oregon. Six of the theaters operated by the companies used a design commonly called "stadium seating." This design placed most of the theater seats on stepped risers rather than on a sloped floor in order to maximize unobstructed views for theater patrons. However, in five of the six theaters in question, wheelchair-accessible seating was located only on the floor's sloped portion, not in the aisle or in the stadium-seat section. Most significantly, more than half of the accessible seats were in the first row.

The result of this design was that wheelchair patrons had no choice but to sit in the first few rows of these theaters. This resulted in viewing angles to the screen of between 24 and 60[degrees]--the average line of sight for nonwheelchair patrons was 20[degrees]--and substantially exceeding design guidelines established by the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers.

OPVA claimed this design violated Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides generally that no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of public facilities. More specifically, the Oregon chapter argued this design did not provide wheelchair patrons with a line of sight comparable to nonwheelchair patrons as required by the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), the Department of Justice regulations implementing the ADA.

The lower court did not agree with OPVA's position and found, as did the court in Lara, that "comparable line of sight" did not include viewing angles but referred only to viewing obstructions. The three individual plaintiffs in the case elected to appeal the lower court's ruling and were rewarded when the Federal Appeals Court reversed the lower court.

This ruling must be followed in those states and U.S. Territories covered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, and Washington. The Lara decision must be followed in those states covered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

While federal courts in states other than those in the fifth or ninth circuits are free to decide this issue on their own, the OPVA case has great practical importance as companies contemplating building or operating theaters in states not covered by one of these courts, and design professionals advising them, must consider whether they want to risk litigation by building a theater that does not provide wheelchair users a line of sight to the screen comparable to that provided to nonwheelchair users.


General Counsel

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Title Annotation:General Counsel; ways to improve wheelchair seating in theaters
Author:Hagel, Lawrence B.
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
Previous Article:Let our actions speak.
Next Article:An accessible setting for the Charters of Freedom.

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