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Movie Theaters Must Guarantee Seats For Wheelchair Users' Companions, Appeals Court Rules
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
April 14, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA--Robin and Felicia Fortyune won a legal victory when a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that movie theatres must guarantee seating for companions of wheelchair users.

The ruling could have broad implications for stadium, theatre, movie and sports fans who use wheelchairs.

In its decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling which said that American Multi-Cinema Inc. violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to remove people without disabilities from seats set aside for companions of patrons who use wheelchairs.

Robin Fortyune, who is described in the case as "a C-5 quadriplegic", arrived with his wife 20 minutes early at their local Torrance, California AMC movie theater to see the movie "Chicken Run" on June 25, 2000.

When the Fortyunes got to the wheelchair accessible section, they found a man and his son in two seats which had been designated for companions of wheelchair users. A sign on the back of the seats read: "NOTICE -- This seat is designated as COMPANION SEATING for our disabled guests, per ADA guidelines. It may be necessary to ask non-disabled patrons to move."

After the man refused to move to other vacant seats, the Fortyunes went to the theater manager to get his help. The manager then asked the man and his son to move. When the request was refused again, the manager told the Fortyunes AMC policy said companions of wheelchair users "will be exposed to the same risk of less desirable seating" during sold-out shows.

Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, who wrote the decision for the appeals court, said the ADA "requires that AMC take steps to remove from a companion seat any person who is not the companion of a wheelchair-bound patron and who refuses to vacate that seat despite being asked to do so."

"As a public accommodation, AMC is responsible -- on a daily basis -- for ensuring that its patrons act reasonably and responsibly with regard to an array of company, state, and federal law or policies," Wardlaw wrote.

A District Court judge in 2002 found that Fortyune was entitled to sue AMC, and ordered the theater chain to change its policy to make sure that a companion of a wheelchair user be "given priority in the use of companion seats".

AMC appealed that decision, arguing that Fortyune did not have any legal standing to sue because his experience was an isolated incident. Lawyers for AMC added that requiring theaters to remove customers without disabilities was "draconian", and constituted "preferential treatment".

The appellate court disagreed, pointing out that Fortyune was a frequent movie-goer, and that the written policy made it likely he would be in the same situation again. It also noted that movie theaters have no problem ejecting customers who use cell phones or are disruptive.

"It really affirms a legal principal that says you can't just build your facility in compliance with access codes and then wash your hands of the ADA," Fortyune's lawyer, Russell C. Handy of the Center for Disability Access, told the Associated Press. "The court said that is not enough, you have to look at how the facility is being used."

Attorneys for AMC could not be reached for comment.

Fortyune v. American Multi-Cinema (U.S. Court of Appeals For the 9th Circuit)  PDF format, requires Adobe Acrobat Reader


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