About Me

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I am an attorney practicing in Hartford, Connecticut. A particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry. My focus on the amusement industry derives from my pre-law career as an operations manager with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Universal Orlando. Having started my career as a ride operator at Cedar Point in 1992, I progressed through the seasonal ranks and ultimately became the Manager of Ride Operations and Park Services at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I also worked in Universal's operations department during the construction and development of Islands of Adventure. Today, I am an active member of the New England Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions and the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. I have been invited to speak at amusement industry meetings and seminars and have worked on a variety of matters relating to this industry.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

GameChanger? California Court Holds Disabled Access To Amusement Rides Not Required By The Americans With Disabilities Act



In July 2012, I told you about a lawsuit filed against Universal Studios Hollywood that I described at the time as “the most important industry lawsuit in years” and “one of the rare legal decisions that could equally impact the day-to-day operations of a small FEC and a huge multi-park resort.”  The case was Castelan v. Universal Studios, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  Why was it such a big deal?  Because it was poised to be the first case to squarely put at issue the extent to which the Americans With Disabilities Act requires amusement facilities to allow ride access to disabled guests.  The ADA has been around for more than two decades, but surprisingly there are no cases that have spoken to this particular issue.  On January 10, the court issued a ruling granting judgment in favor of Universal Studios finding, essentially, that an operator of an amusement ride may exclude disabled guests for virtually any reason without violating the ADA.  The decision is remarkable in that it flies in the face of long standing consensus belief  – even in the amusement industry – about the ADA.  Is it a game changer for the amusement industry?  Could be.  But don’t everyone get too excited just yet.    


Just to refresh your memories, the Castelan case revolved around The Mummy attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood.  The case was brought by two plaintiffs neither of whom had the requisite "one functioning arm / hand and one functioning leg" necessary to ride per the manufacturer’s requirements.  Although the plaintiffs’ claims apparently morphed a bit over time, ultimately they argued that Universal violated the ADA by not designing a ride that could accommodate disabilities. 

The Court ruled in Universal’s favor on two independent bases.  What that means is that the court identified two reasons why Universal was entitled to prevail and, in the court’s view, either one – standing completely alone and independent of the other – was sufficient to warrant judgment in Universal’s favor.  Now, since the court considered them independently, I will as well.  So today, I’ll look at the first (and most noteworthy) basis.  In my next piece, I’ll tackle the second one.  

Basis No. 1: 
Simply Put, The ADA Does Not Apply To Amusement Rides
(But It Does Apply To Their Stations)

The Court’s first basis for ruling in favor of Universal is a doozy.  Relying on some Ninth Circuit precedent of questionable applicability to these facts, the Court analogized amusement parks containing rides to bookstores containing books, and found that  just as the ADA does not require bookstores to “assure that the books are available in Braille,” but only requires "access to the store,” Universal was only required to ensure that its “goods, services, and rollercoasters are physically accessible to persons with disabilities, in accordance with the regulations under the ADA – even if those persons are otherwise precluded from the ride due to its extreme design and consequent safety requirements.”

The court basically ruled that a ride is “inventory” to an amusement park just like a book is to a bookstore, and the ADA cannot dictate what inventory a public accommodation offers to customers.  So long as disabled guests can get into the park and, apparently, physically access the ride itself, the park has no obligation under the ADA to allow disabled guest access to actually participate in the experience.  Notably, the court identified no statutory or regulatory standards that an amusement park is required to comply with to justify exclusion of guests with disabilities from a ride.  The Court simply said:  

Defendants may offer and provide to the public – and therefore design as well – “whatever goods and services” they desire – including rollercoasters that have so many twists, turns, jolts, drops, loops, and excessive speeds that a manufacturer … might limit the ride to only persons with one hand and leg.
In its simplest and most realistic terms, therefore, the Court held that the ADA just does not apply to amusement rides themselves, even as it requires access to the physical structures surrounding them.  If a park chooses to have a rollercoaster (or any other ride) that does not accommodate disabled guests, that is its choice, and it is not required to make any showing that its ride admission criteria are warranted or necessary if it is sued under the ADA.
 
Like I said. A doozy.  But… 

Does This Ruling REALLY Mean That The ADA Does Not Apply To Amusement Rides?

I think that is the most reasonable interpretation of the court’s opinion, but there is a narrower way to see it too.

In the opinion, the court goes out of its way to say that it is only addressing the question of whether it violates the ADA to design a ride that cannot accommodate disabilities.  Technically, therefore, the court’s ruling does not address operational policies – it only addresses potential ADA violations that arise from the park’s “ride design, alteration and procurement process.” Viewed in that light, the case actually answers a very narrow question and one that, frankly, does not make much sense in the real world.  

No one seriously contends that all public accommodations must be 100% accessible.  If that were the case, the ADA would not contain exceptions, such as for safety requirements, would require barrier removal even where not “readily achievable,” and would not contain a “structural impractability” exception for new construction.  So the question of whether a ride must be designed to be 100% accessible seems to be a question easily answered in the negative without much effort.  If that really is the only question the court intended to answer, it took a rather odd route to get there. 

The problem, though, with reading the case this narrowly is two-fold.  First, the facts of the case do not really arise from a “design-only” issue.  It is obvious that the Plaintiffs sued because they believed they were discriminated against in Universal’s operation of the ride – indeed, a significant component of their complaint was that Universal changed its access policies so that the plaintiffs could not ride even though they had been allowed in previous years.  Moreover, the plaintiffs never sued the ride’s manufacturer – a party that undoubtedly played a large role in the ride's design  This just isn’t a design case or, at least, it’s not strictly a design case.  

Perhaps more importantly, there’s this:   

“Defendants’ may offer and provide to the public – and therefore design as well – 
whatever goods and services they desire[.]”  

 The court’s ruling on its face reaches beyond just design, it reaches the goods and services an amusement park may “offer and provide to the public” and holds that whatever it chooses to “offer and provide to the public” can exclude individuals with disabilities without any requisite showing of necessity.  To those that know anything about the ADA, even those on the defense side like myself, that is a pretty tough pill to swallow. 
  
So, could the opinion be read to only speak to a very narrow design issue?  Yes.  Will it be?  Probably not.


How Much Should An Amusement Facility Rely On This Case Moving Forward?

This part of the court’s ruling is pretty remarkable (remember, there’s another independent holding I’ll get to in my next piece). But I think amusement operators should be very cautious about how much weight they give it. 
  
Depending on some procedural issues that I won’t bore you with, this case could be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals anytime from a few weeks from now to several months from now.  The Ninth Circuit is nationally known as a very liberal court and has shown a willingness to give ADA plaintiffs a good degree of latitude in pleading and proving their cases.  This is the same court, after all, that allowed a plaintiff who won prior cases by alleging that she was confined to a wheelchair to bring a claim against Disneyland alleging that she could only use a Segway.  This is also the court that, in that same ruling, had no qualms about stating that some of Disney’s ADA arguments “border on the absurd” notwithstanding the fact that these same arguments were convincing to a Florida District Court.  This is probably not the ideal court to decide an appeal in Universal’s favor. 

Moreover, and wholly apart from the proclivities of the Ninth Circuit or even whether the case is appealed at all, the notion that the ADA just doesn’t apply to a physical structure designed to hold passengers and provide a recreational experience and, therefore, that an operator can discriminate on the basis of a disability without any bounds is certainly not within the common "gut-check" conception of the ADA. I do think the court got it right that there is no legal obligation for an amusement ride to be designed to be all-inclusive for every disability, but, again, that only matters if a subsequent court reads the case very narrowly and academically.

Finally, there is the issue of geography.  Remember that this is a single decision from a district court in California.  It is not binding on anyone other than the parties to the lawsuit.  True, it will be persuasive to varying degrees (particularly as it is the only case of its kind out there), but the further away from California one gets the less persuasive the case ultimately may be.  Courts in Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, and, especially, California – which are all located in the Ninth Circuit – are likely to give a ruling from one of their sister-courts more credence than courts in Florida, New York, Ohio, or elsewhere in the country.
 
So, is this “the most important industry lawsuit in years?”  I still think it could be.  The court's ruling seems to open the door to a huge heretofore unknown and industry-specific exemption to ADA liability.  But it is for precisely that reason that this case warrants careful further observation and should be relied upon with caution in the coming months.  It’s just too soon to know whether this is a game-changer, an outlier, or simply a wrongly decided case.  The good news, though, is that the second of the court’s two independent basis for judgment is, in my opinion, stronger, less controversial, and (while not perfect) does likely provide some useful guidance to amusement operators moving forward.  More on that in the next piece.

Click here to read GameChanger? (Part 2) Can Ride Owners Rely On Manufacturer's Recommendations To Satisfy The ADA?

3 comments:

  1. In your main quote, you recount "...might limit the ride to only persons with one hand and leg" the logic of that closing seems "backwards" from what I have to think was the intent of the court's assertion. Was that what they said, or was there a copying error?

    Shouldn't the word "preclude" be in there, somewhere?

    Thanks for the articles, Erik!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would like to know where I can get contact information if I wanted to pursue legal action in regards to a similar incident that I just recently experienced. I was born with only one leg, but I have all of my other "extremities". I was denied and questioned on many rides at both Universal Parks particularly on rides that I have been able to previously ride for several years. I believe that the ride operators need to be more trained in their "clinical" decision making on rides. Also I feel like a screening process should be conducted prior to getting in the park to not have to go through the humiliation or embarrassment of being denied on almost every attraction. The one major concern I have with the Rider's Guide policies is the part that states all riders with missing extremities must have a prosthetic, yet each ride attraction policy states that the prosthetic is not allowed on the ride and must be removed, which in turn makes a rider non-compliant. It's like a Catch-22. Please provide any information that you can provide. This was an interesting article read. I can understand in the case of a double-amputee, but I feel like the ride operators are denying riders that should be able to be within the compliance of the ride policies.And I feel the policy is slightly adjusted to mis-diagnose all riders with disabilities on rides that all operate to where you have to "sit down" in some sort of harness be it a lap or shoulder restraint. Basically I mean that a disabled rider has the potential of not being able to ride anything that is basically requires you to sit down and that is very troubling.

    Daniel Scott

    ReplyDelete

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