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Ruling Could Force Theater Alterations

Judge finds that AMC chain's stadium-style seating layout violates disabilities law.

November 28, 2002|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

AMC Entertainment Inc., the giant movie theater chain, said Wednesday that it plans to appeal a recent federal court decision that its popular stadium-style seating violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Last week's ruling by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles stemmed from a 1999 lawsuit brought by the Justice Department. It broke a string of successful legal victories by the theater industry, which claims to have complied with the 12-year-old law by providing other, unobstructed views for moviegoers in wheelchairs.

In her decision Cooper said wheelchair users are segregated into separate areas, usually close to the screen, that are inferior for movie viewing. The judge concluded that AMC theaters violated the disabilities act by failing to "provide lines of sight comparable to those for members of the general public."

"It's a great victory for common sense," said Larry Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland.

AMC's offices in Kansas City, Mo., closed early on Wednesday and executives could not be reached for comment.

But AMC said in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier in the day that it planned to appeal Cooper's decision.

AMC noted in the filing that other courts had approved the kind of seating AMC provides for the disabled, and added that Cooper's ruling does not suggest any specific remedies.

As a result, AMC said, it was impossible to know the effect the ruling could have on both the company and on the movie exhibition business as a whole. Industry experts said, however, that the judge's decision could force theater owners to revamp their seating plans, potentially costing them millions of dollars.

Stadium seating is a relatively new innovation that gives moviegoers a clear view of the screen without having to look past the head of the person in front of them. Rows of seats rise sharply on tiered levels, in contrast to the gently sloping seating that theaters traditionally have offered.

AMC first installed stadium seating in Dallas in 1995, court papers show. It since has made stadium seating a key part of its marketing, advertising that seats "virtually suspend the moviegoer in front of the wall-to-wall screen" and that all seats are "the best in the house."

Because stadium seating is accessible by stairs, theaters usually set aside an area below for those in wheelchairs.

Law professor Mark Kelman of Stanford University said that Cooper's decision was significant because it questioned the notion that the disabled should sit in another area away from most others to watch a movie. The disabilities act was intended to break down those barriers.

"It's not about how much worse the line of sight is, but about segregation," Kelman said

Law professor Chai Feldblum of Georgetown University in Washington said providing more equal seating is a reasonable request for theaters.

"If I really care about getting a good seat in a theater, I have the power to get there early and get a good seat," said Feldblum, who helped write the disabilities act. "But if I use a wheelchair, I can never have the access those who don't use wheelchairs have."

AMC shares were unchanged Wednesday at $9.70 on the American Stock Exchange.

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