ADA Class Action Defense Cases–Ault v. Walt Disney World: Florida Federal Court Dismisses ADA Class Action For Lack Of Standing Holding Class Action Did Not Seek “Access” But “Human Dignity” Through New Technology

Oct 13, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Class Action Challenging Disney Prohibition Against use of Segways at Parks Warranted Dismissal for Lack of Standing Florida Federal Holds because Disney Afforded Named Plaintiffs “Access” to its Parks through Scooters, Wheelchairs, and 4-Wheel “Electronic Stand-Up Vehicles” (ESVs) but Barred Segways for Safety Reasons

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Walt Disney World alleging violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); specifically, the class action complaint alleged that Disney violated the ADA by refusing to allow disabled persons to use Segways within the park. Ault v. Walt Disney World Co., ___ F.Supp.2d ___ (M.D. Fla. October 6, 2009) (Slip Opn., at 1, 3-5). According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, plaintiffs are disabled individuals who prefer to use Segways for mobility “rather than a ‘traditional’ mobility device such as a wheelchair or scooter.” Id., at 3. Disney accommodates disabled guests, and provides wheelchairs and scooters, but for safety reasons has banned the use of two-wheeled devices such as Segways. Id. However, because it realized that some disabled guests would prefer to stand, it designed a 4-wheel “electronic stand-up vehicle” (ESV) that it makes available to guests. Id., at 4. The parties vigorously litigated the class action, and ultimately reached a proposed class action settlement that would permit Disney’s policy against Segways to remain but require Disney “to make a certain number of its ESVs available to disabled guests at its Parks.” Id., at 5. The district court conditionally certified the matter as a class action for settlement purposes and granted preliminary approval to the settlement, id., at 1. The federal court received almost 100 objections to the proposed settlement, including objections from various disability-rights groups, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Attorneys General of twenty-three States. Id., at 1-2. After conducting “an extensive two-day fairness hearing,” the federal court concluded that plaintiffs lacked standing to prosecute the action and, accordingly, vacated its prior order and dismissed the class action complaint without prejudice. Id., at 2.

The class action focuses on the use of Segways at Disney parks. The district court explained, “Although Disney has reviewed its policy against Segways annually, it has consistently concluded that Segway use may not be safe in its densely crowded Parks. For that reason, Disney’s ESV was built around essentially the same technology as its proprietary sit-down scooters and underwent similar safety testing.” Ault, at 4-5. Specifically, Disney designed its ESV to meet “the safety standards for power scooters established by the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America.” Id., at 5 n.8. In examining the standing of the named plaintiffs, the court noted that one of them, who suffered from progressive Multiple Sclerosis, would “sometimes uses a Segway as her mobility device,” but her legs would get stiff and it was “difficult for her to even stand without needing to hold on to something,” id., at 6; accordingly, she only used her Segway about once a month, id., at 6 n.11, and previously used a traditional scooter during a multi-day visit to Disney parks, id., at 6. Another named plaintiff walked around the park during the first two days of her trip to Disney World, but used a scooter on the third day for a couple of hours. Id., at 7. The last named plaintiff testified that he is “physically able to use a wheelchair or scooter” but prefers his Segway “because no one looks at him and wonders what is ‘wrong’ with him,” id. The district court also summarized various objections to the class action settlement. See id., at 8-11.

As noted above, the district court dismissed the class action complaint because it concluded that plaintiffs lacked standing to prosecute the action. Defense attorneys previously had moved the court to dismiss the class action on this ground, arguing that the class action complaint “failed to allege that the requested change in Disney’s policy against Segways was ‘necessary’ to afford them access to the Parks.” Ault, at 11. In denying the motion to dismiss, the district court observed that “[whether] a policy modification was ‘necessary’…‘would require the exploration and resolution of factual issues that are simply not before the Court at this time,’” id. Based on the evidence and testimony now before the court, “it is clear that the named Plaintiffs’ requested relief is not ‘necessary’ and, therefore, the named Plaintiffs’ claims fall outside the zone of interests created by 42 U.S.C. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii).” Id. Based on the court’s analysis of standing under the ADA, see id., at 13-17, it was apparent that the class action did not involve a challenge to “access” but rather “the extent to which the ADA can (or should) promote equal treatment and human dignity by requiring acceptance of new technologies,” id., at 17. The district court concluded that plaintiffs lacked standing and therefore dismissed the complaint, id., at 18.

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