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Man's lawsuit breaks barriers in Riverside

Judge's order gives city four months to fix its curbs. Decision is hailed by activists for disabled.

May 17, 2007|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

In a victory for the disabled rights movement, a federal judge Wednesday ordered Riverside to pay a wheelchair-bound man $221,000 damages and to fix 189 curb ramps within four months.

The award is the largest in a state case involving disabled access.

U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson granted the award to John Lonberg, 69, who has battled the city for almost two decades to improve hundreds of curbs, sidewalks and driveways.

"It couldn't get much better than this," Lonberg said. "This will send a message to Riverside and other cities that courts won't tolerate intolerable delay in making services available to everyone."

In his 24-page decision, Larson ordered the city to repair sidewalk ramps that violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 and state access laws dating to 1968.

That legislation requires public agencies to develop detailed plans and to install accommodations for the disabled whenever sidewalks, crosswalks and other pedestrian ways are built, repaired or altered.

In setting damages, Larson noted that Lonberg had repeatedly encountered improperly constructed ramps, including nine he tried to use at least 100 times each near his home.

"Although the plaintiff may not have suffered a physical injury as a result of the city's discrimination, there is no question he has suffered a very clear harm both to his dignity and his ability to become a self-reliant member of society," Larson wrote.

Riverside officials would say only that the city attorney's office is reviewing the decision and will be discussing it with them.

Lonberg, who was paralyzed below the waist by a drunk driver in 1983, sued the city almost 10 years ago, after years of trying to persuade them to fix sidewalks.

During the case, the city identified 12,400 barriers to the disabled in the city, including broken sidewalks, impassible driveways and 7,300 missing curb ramps.

In March 2006, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Timlin, then assigned to the case, rejected as inadequate the city's federally required access plan and ordered a new one. Under the law, governments were supposed to complete their plans in 1992.

"The city, over a period of years, has engaged in a pervasive pattern of violating" the Americans With Disabilities Act and related regulations, Timlin said.

In February after five days of trial, Larson, who had then taken over the case, tentatively ruled that the city had violated the law. He finalized his decision Wednesday.

"We are pleased with the result," said Terry J. Kilpatrick, Lonberg's attorney. "The city has built curb ramps that no one can use. Then you have to take them to court to get them fixed. Unfortunately, John has tried for years to get the city to fix these things without going to court."

Lonberg and other handicapped activists have made access to sidewalks the latest battleground in the disability rights movement. Over the last several years, they have filed federal lawsuits against local and state governments to secure equal access to public rights of way, such as sidewalks, crosswalks and at transit stations.

The activists assert that sidewalks are in such poor condition in many cities that people in wheelchairs have to detour onto streets, an illegal and risky undertaking.

Larson's decision "is huge," said Paula Pearlman, deputy director of the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization. "Sidewalks are part of what makes communities. They link our homes to the world," she said. "Sidewalks that are inaccessible put you in the street where you are in real danger."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, several hundred wheelchair users are struck by motor vehicles every year nationwide. About a dozen or more are killed, including several in California.

Statistics do not reveal how many people were hit while detouring onto streets because of inaccessible sidewalks.

Nevertheless, disability rights advocates contend that many of those accidents could have been avoided had sidewalks been accessible.

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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