In my last piece, I told you about a recent ruling from the District Court for the Central District of California in a case called Castelan v. Universal Studios which granted judgment in Universal’s favor in a case alleging violation of the ADA brought by two disabled guests that were not permitted to ride The Mummy because they did not meet the minimum ride requirements of one functioning arm / hand and one functioning leg. The court premised its ruling on two independent grounds. The first, which was the subject of my last piece, was that the ADA did not require amusement ride access to guests with disabilities. That part of the ruling is, in my opinion, as questionable as it potentially game-changing and should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt for the time being. But the second basis for the court’s judgment was both exactly what I would have argued in Universal’s place and finally gives us some long awaited guidance. So, let’s talk about that one and what it could mean for the industry moving forward. A little preview – This holding might not be perfect, but I think it has a lot more legs than the first one.
Basis No. 2
Even If The ADA Applied,
Exclusion of Disabled Guests Is Permitted For Safety Reasons
Even If The ADA Applied,
Exclusion of Disabled Guests Is Permitted For Safety Reasons
The court’s second basis for finding in Universal’s favor arose directly from the ADA regulations, specifically 28 C.F.R. §36.301 which allows a public accommodation to discriminate on access if there are “legitimate safety requirements that are necessary for safe operation.” Here, Universal argued that the manufacturer of The Mummy sets the criteria necessary to ride the attraction and that California’s amusement safety law requires Universal to follow these recommendations. Universal argued that the ADA should not require access when state law prohibited it – in effect, that it should not be in the position of violating either the ADA or California state law.
The plaintiffs did not dispute the requirements of California state law, but they argued that Universal should have to prove that the manufacturer’s rider requirements were legitimate. The Court disagreed, stating that, at least as far as parks in California are concerned, a park need not show any more than the manufacturer’s recommendation to fall within the “legitimate safety requirement exception.”
The Court is unwilling to require Defendants to second-guess the manufacturer’s safety requirements. California law requires enforcement of the manufacturer’s safety requirements, and the manufacturer has directed that riders must have at least one functioning arm and hand, and at least one leg and foot. It is not Defendants’ responsibility to challenge the manufacturer’s operating manual, and ensure these requirements are in fact necessary for the safe operation of The Mummy. If Plaintiffs believe the restrictions are overprotective, they are free to initiate an action against the manufacturer.
Now, that’s more in line with expectations and seems to answer a question I’ve been asked repeatedly: Can an amusement operator simply rely on a manufacturer’s recommendations as justification for its ride admission policy? This case seems to say that you can do exactly that. So, any issues here? Well…maybe.
What About Outside of California?
The good news is that this part of the case arises directly from the ADA regulations themselves. In that respect alone I think it is on far more solid footing than the Court’s first basis for judgment. But it is imperative to keep in mind that the Court’s holding arises not just from the ADA, but, more precisely, from the intersection of California state law and the ADA. Here, because California state law required adoption of manufacturer’s recommendations, the court was willing to deem the “legitimate safety requirements” exception satisfied. But, importantly, the case does not address whether the same result would have (or should have) been reached absent this requirement under state law. It is certainly possible (perhaps likely) that the court would have required a greater level of proof of the necessity of the manufacturer’s recommendations if California law had not required their adoption.
So for operators in states where there is no statutory or regulatory requirement to abide by manufacturer’s recommendations, this case does not really answer the question of what must be proven to establish the applicability of the “legitimate safety requirements” exception.
Does This Holding Really Comport With ADA Regulations?
Even in those states that have a statutory / regulatory requirement similar to California’s, I would not be surprised if a court paused at the Castelan court’s analysis. While the ADA undeniably contains the “legitimate safety requirements” exception cited by the court, it also makes clear that “safety requirements must be based on actual risks and not on mere speculation, stereotypes, or generalizations about individuals with disabilities.” The Castelan decision never mentions this requirement at all despite the fact that is contained in the very regulatory section Castelan relied upon. This is something of a glaring omission in the court’s reasoning and could well cause a future court to consider whether Castelan really got it right or whether it did so for the right reasons.
Now, I think the judge in Castelan would clarify, if she were asked to do so, that it implicitly found that the ride manufacturer’s recommendations sufficiently proved the existence of an “actual risk.” The court would probably say that if the California state legislature thought the manufacturer’s recommendations set the standard for safety, that is sufficient proof of “actual risks” to pass muster under the ADA. And, I think that is a reasonable position. But … unfortunately, the court did not actually say any of this, but ignored the issue entirely.
What About Rides Without Manufacturer Safety Recommendations?
California’s ride safety regulations only require adoption of manufacturer’s ride recommendations “to the extent such recommendations exist and are reasonably available.” But there are any number of rides still operating where such recommendations don’t exist because the manufacturer no longer exists and either didn’t issue them when the ride was manufactured or, if they did, documentation of those recommendations has been lost over the passage of time.
Castelan offers no guidance on what kind of proof is sufficient to satisfy the “legitimate safety requirements” exception under these circumstances. This is a completely understandable omission given the facts of the case, but nonetheless it is an omission that continues to leave a sizeable category of rides in ADA-limbo.
Did Castelan Just Shift ADA Compliance Duties To Manufacturers?
Finally, I think it is well worth considering whether Castelan just painted a target on the back of ride manufacturers. The Castelan court was unwilling to require amusement parks to “second guess” manufacturers. Thus, so long as an operator can demonstrate compliance with manufacturer’s recommendations, it is, by and large, immune from ADA liability as it relates to the ride. The remedy for a plaintiff that believes the manufacturer’s recommendations are not legitimate?
Well, according to the Castelan court, the plaintiff “is free to initiate an action against the manufacturer.” So, instead of the manufacturer being on the sidelines (as it was here) as a non-party to the lawsuit, the Castelan ruling requires manufacturers to be named if ride access is at issue. Not only does this raise a number of legal questions without easy answers (Is a ride manufacturer even a proper defendant in a Title III ADA lawsuit? Does a disabled person have standing to challenge a manufacturer’s recommendations under California’s ride safety regulations?), it also increases the costs and potential exposure to ride manufacturers. If I’m a ride manufacturer, this is not a development I would be excited about.
So, can an operator rely on the manufacturer’s recommendations to satisfy its ADA obligations? Well, if the operator is in California, then Castelan suggests that it can. But the case is certainly not the be-all and end-all with respect to the discussion of the ADA’s applicability to amusement rides. We now have guidance, and because of that Castelan is a very important case. But we need to see what happens in the next case, and the one after that, to get a better feel for where this area of the law is really going.