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Supreme Court will consider limits for disability lawsuits

Friday, January 11, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court agreed Friday to decide if cities can face big-dollar punitive damage verdicts for not accommodating the disabled.

The eventual ruling could have implications for cities nationwide that have tried, some more successfully than others, to make their buildings and services friendly to the disabled.

The decision to review the issue gives justices another chance to continue a trend of narrowing the federal law that mandates the accommodations, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

At issue is government protection from lawsuits like the one a paraplegic man filed against Kansas City, Mo., police after he was injured while being taken to jail for trespassing at a country-western bar.

Jeffrey Gorman, who uses a wheelchair because he was paralyzed below the waist in a car accident, warned officers that their van did not have special equipment to transport him safely, his lawyer told the Supreme Court.

"Ignoring Gorman, officers removed him from his wheelchair, propped him on a bench, and tied him to the van wall," attorney John M. Simpson wrote in Gorman's filing.

Gorman injured his shoulder and back and has had surgery, Simpson said.

Kansas City is not contesting the $1 million in actual damages that a jury ordered it to pay for medical costs and lost income. But the city said Gorman should not have been allowed to pursue punitive damages. A jury's $1.2 million punitive damage award is pending.

A year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that state workers cannot use the ADA to win money damages for on-the-job discrimination. The court held that the disability-rights law does not trump states' constitutional immunity against being sued for damages in federal courts.

The latest case involves city immunity only. A group of California cities said town leaders are having a hard time interpreting what they are required to do for the disabled.

"The threat of an award of punitive damages coupled with the broad nature of these laws creates a high risk of serving one group in excess of what the law requires at the expense of the municipalities' remaining citizens," Sacramento City Attorney Samuel L. Jackson said in urging the court to take the appeal.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled last year in the Gorman case that he could seek punitive damages. The court ordered a review of the $1.2 million. But court members noted then that the ruling conflicted with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

"Perhaps our parting ways with our sister circuit will prompt the Supreme Court or Congress to inject additional clarity in this area," the 8th Circuit wrote.

Kansas City's lawyer in the case, Lawrence S. Robbins, said in filings that "the 8th Circuit all but invited this court to review its decision."

Robbins said a court clarification would "have sweeping implications for a wide array of other cases."

The court record presents different versions of what happened the night Gorman was arrested in 1992. Off-duty Kansas City police officers said he was thrown out of the bar after a fight with a bouncer, was drunk and belligerent.

His attorney claims he was asked to leave because he was in a wheelchair and was arrested after approaching off-duty officers for help.

Both sides agree that he fell from the bench of the van after being tied with his own belt.

The case is Barnes v. Gorman, 01-682.


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