Baseball has an inherent feeling of inclusivity. It’s a sport played around the world at all ages and enjoyed by fans of all backgrounds. There are occasions when the game is not easily enjoyed by some fans as compared to others. In October of 2018, a few Seattle Mariners fans sued Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District alleging that T – Mobile Park (formerly Safeco Park) does not adhere to stadium standards set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is the governing body that addresses discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires that places of public accommodation must provide full and equal enjoyment for people with disabilities. Sports stadiums are not exempt from this concept and must be “accessible and usable” by those with disabilities. The Department of Justice (DOJ) implements the rules of the ADA and in the early 90’s created Accessibility Stadiums which established the rules for stadiums to follow to create an accessible environment for those with disabilities. Stadium Guidelines establishes that wheelchair seating must have a line of sight that is comparable to the line of sight that is provided for other spectators. A distinction is also made for stadiums where spectators stand. The Guidelines establish that seating locations must provide a line of sight over standing spectators.
(Image diagraming the sightlines described by Accessible Stadiums owned by the DOJ)
The plaintiff fans used wheelchairs and sat in the designated areas around the ballpark in various sections. The plaintiff’s expert claimed that “the sightlines of spectators using wheelchairs were nearly always more obstructed than the sightlines of spectators not using wheelchairs.” Naturally, the defendant owners and operators expert countered this statement claiming “spectators using wheelchairs are ‘able to see over the shoulders and between the heads of people in the row immediately in front, and over the heads of people in the second row in front of the accessible seating.’” The district court ruled in favor of the Owners and Operators and the plaintiffs appealed. The district court recited both requirements, that fans using wheelchairs must be able to see the playing surface between the heads and shoulders of fans immediately in front of them and that fans using wheelchairs must be able to see the field over the heads of those two rows in front. Plaintiffs argued that the district court made the mistake of only addressing the first requirement and not the second in their decision. In September of this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the plaintiffs appeal and agreed with plaintiffs. The court of appeals was not satisfied with how the district court came to its conclusion and ruling for owners and operators and decided to vacate the decision and remand it back to the lower court for further proceedings. No decision was made in regard to whether the sightlines are compliant with the ADA guidelines.
While there was no decision regarding the actual sightlines at the stadium, this decision comes as a sort of win for the plaintiffs. This is a chance for further hope, a chance for further analysis and review to be done as far as what is actually visible for those in wheelchairs when at the stadium. The district court did not make their decision by examining both standards, sightlines over the first and second row of fans. The court has the opportunity to re-examine and there is hope for changes to be made for a more accessible and enjoyable experience for those with disabilities. Civil suits usually end in a settlement where money is paid to the plaintiffs to end the litigation however, a settlement is unlikely for two reasons. First, there is likely no chance for a settlement in this case because what the plaintiffs are looking for here is a better experience at the ballpark and no amount of money improves the experience when you are at the ballpark. Finally, a settlement is also unlikely because the defendant owners won initially at the trial level and likely feel like they will win again even after this victory for plaintiffs. With a victory already under their belt, the defendants will likely feel that they will win again, all they must do is show that those sitting in the wheelchair accessible sections can see over the heads and shoulders of those in the first and second rows in front of them. At this time there is no set date for the case to be re-tried.