- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004


The Supreme Court refused yesterday to consider whether disabled moviegoers must be given better seats than the front-row accommodations they are provided in many new stadium-seating theaters.

Justices had been asked to decide whether a landmark disabilities law requires better accommodations, and if theater owners can be ordered to make after-the-fact changes.

Instead, at the urging of the Bush administration, they left undisturbed rulings against two theater companies while the government reviews its guidelines for movie theater owners.

Stadium-riser seating gives unobstructed views to most everyone in the theater. Critics, however, complain that those in wheelchairs are often left to awkwardly crane their necks from the less-desirable front rows.

In some theaters the wheelchair-accessible area is 11 feet from the screen, “essentially the worst seats in the house,” lawyers for three disabled women in one of the Supreme Court cases said in court filings.

Remodeling the auditoriums would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, movie theater companies told justices, and is unnecessary because the seats up front provide “clear and unobstructed views” of screens.

Movie theater accommodations have become the latest battleground over rights for the disabled. A dozen courts have dealt with lawsuits over theater seating.

The Justice Department “chose to sit on its hands while thousands of stadium-style movie theater auditoria were constructed based upon the reasonable and universal understanding among design professionals” that wheelchair patrons only had to be given an unobstructed view, justices were told by the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The group estimates there are about 10,000 individual theaters with stadium seating — most in large multiplexes. It would cost $100,000 to install elevators in each of those or $50,000 each for wheelchair lifts, the association said.

In one of the appeals rejected by the court yesterday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the federal government’s lawsuit that accuses Texas-based Cinemark USA Inc. of discriminating against patrons in wheelchairs.

The other appeal that justices declined to review came from Oregon, where three disabled women complained of dizziness, headaches or nausea while trying to watch movies from the front of the theater.

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