Disabled suit vs. UA revised

A federal judge has kept alive a lawsuit against United Artists Theaters by wheelchair-bound and hearing-impaired moviegoers but struck down most of their claims for damages.

The suit contends UA theaters in California fail to provide access to wheelchairs or listening devices for the hearing-impaired, in violation of state and federal law. The five plaintiffs sought changes in the theaters and damages, which can be tripled under state law, for ticket costs and other claimed losses.

In a ruling made public Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said damages are not available for an owner’s failure to make structural changes to buildings that are not adequately accessible to the handicapped.

He ruled that damages were potentially available for a theater’s failure to provide “assistive listening devices,” which allow the hard-of-hearing to pick up words spoken while music is played on a soundtrack. Those improvements are not necessarily “structural modifications” and may be covered by the damage provisions in state law, Henderson said.

He also rejected, at least for now, United Artists’ request to limit the suit to its theater in Emeryville, east of San Francisco, and a few other locations where the five plaintiffs said they encountered problems.

Henderson said he will decide later on the plaintiffs’ request to sue on behalf of all similarly disabled people at all UA theaters in the state.

“I’m pleased that the heart of our case has passed this hurdle,” said Laurence Paradis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

He said the ruling on damages should not be a serious blow to the suit because its main purpose was to seek changes in the theaters. But the unavailability of damages under state law could be a problem in other cases because building owners will have less incentive to make changes, Paradis said.

A lawyer for United Artists did not return a telephone call.

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