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Thumbs down for theater’s wheelchair policy

Law Review

Robin Fortyune is a C-5 quadriplegic who requires both a wheelchair and an aide to attend movie theaters.



When Robin and his wife attempted to view American Multi-Cinema’s (AMC) screening of the film “Chicken Run,” they were prevented from doing so when a man and his son refused to vacate the wheelchair “companion” seats they occupied.

The number of selfish jerks in the world never ceases to amaze me. After Jerk and Jerk Jr. refused to look for another seat, AMC’s manager told the Fortyunes that under the company policy on wheelchair companion seats at sold-out movies, he could not require the Jerks to move. The Fortyunes left the theater humiliated.



The AMC disabled companion seat is labeled with this notice: “NOTICE Ð This seat is designated as COMPANION SEATING for disabled guests, per Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. It may be necessary to ask non-disabled patrons to move.”

The AMC manual provides the following guidelines for companion seating: “In situations in which the auditorium is legitimately ‘sold-out,’ companions of guests using wheelchairs will be exposed to the same risk of less desirable seating as non-disabled couples who are sold ‘single’ seats. In a sold-out situation, everyone shares the same risk of being unable to sit together.”

AMC offered Jerk and Jr. free passes to vacate the companion seats, which, true to form, they refused. They offered free passes to the Fortyunes, who accepted. However, they sued a year-and-a-half later, claiming AMC violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 1990, Congress enacted the ADA, which prohibits individuals from being discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of services and facilities at any place of public accommodation. The law requires owners, including theater owners, to make reasonable modifications or reasonable accommodations for the disabled – as it should.

Fortyune’s suit claimed he required an attendant to enjoy the viewing of the film, which must be accepted as fact. And that the requested accommodation to make available a companion seat next to his disabled seat was reasonable and would not “fundamentally alter the theater,” an ADA criteria.

The federal trial court ruled against the theater, stating that as long as the wheelchair-bound patron and his or her companion arrive at the wheelchair seating area at least 10 minutes prior to showtime, AMC must ensure the companion seat is available. If the wheelchair-bound patron and companion arrive less than 10 minutes before the beginning of the movie, the companion may have to find another seat.

Remarkably, the company that owns the theater claimed that in a sold-out situation, the companion, like everyone else, should share the same risk of being unable to sit together. My guess is AMC spent more money in attorneys’ fees than the loss of use of an occasional companion seat at its many theaters. Although there is also the monitoring factor.

AMC lost on both counts. It had to pay its attorneys (always) and honor the injunction: Keep a wheelchair companion seat available at least 10 minutes prior to showtime.

The court ruled that the injunction did not unfairly discriminate in favor of the disabled patron and his wife.

Part of the court’s analysis was that wheelchair-bound patrons and companions have very few seating opportunities compared to nonwheelchair-bound patrons.

Seems pretty basic.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter – Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Bipartisan McPherson Commission and the California Fair Political Practices Commission. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or at the firm’s web site, http://www.portersimon.com.


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