Fans in wheelchairs often face added difficulty when searching for a perfect seat at the ballpark. With fewer handicap accessible seats near the front row or infield, standing spectators frequently block the view of the action on the field.
As a result, several lawsuits against the Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners have been filed alleging that their stadiums do not provide adequate sightlines over standing spectators in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, both the Cubs’ and Orioles’ stadiums predate the ADA entirely.
The ADA, passed in 1990, among many regulations across various industries and businesses, require that wheelchair-accessible seating must account for at least 1% of total seating at a stadium.
Additionally, the seats must be dispersed around the facility to offer comparable seating options available to the general public. As of 2010, the ADA also finalized requirements that stadium seats have adequate sightlines above and between anticipated standing fans.
Though the sightline requirement was not finalized until 2010, it had been a concern since the ADA’s implementation in 1990. The Department of Justice published a recommendation for sightline fixes in 1994 and adopted more formal guidelines in 2004.
In 1994, the Department of Justice’s Access Board sought to update the original ADA stadium seating requirements based on issues observed after its initial implementation.
The board recommended that wheelchair users be provided a “choice in sightlines that is comparable to that of the general public.”
The 2004 update to the ADA stadium seating requirements included language that persons using wheelchair spaces be provided “choices of seating locations and viewing angles that are substantially similar to, or better than, the choices of seating locations and viewing angles available to all other spectators.”
Conflicting judicial opinions during the 10-year period between the updates left no clear answer for the Mariners’ T-Mobile Park’s construction (the former Safeco Field was built in 1997) and the Mariners are not the only team who built a stadium during this 10-year period. Thirteen major league parks opened between 1994 and 2004, meaning costly renovations could sweep Major League Baseball.
This leaves a question for architects, engineers and lawyers about whether the construction of multiple stadiums built during the ADA revision period needed to comply with the more ambiguous 1994 standards or the 2004 standards.
The complaint against the Mariners, filed on behalf of four disabled fans in 2018, shows a wheelchair-accessible seat at the top of a lower section directly behind home plate.
The complaint references this illustration in support of its argument that when spectators stand up in the back rows of the section, a wheelchair user cannot see a batter in the batter’s box. Complaint, Landis et al. v. Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, No. 2:18-CV-01512 (W.D. Wash. Oct. 15, 2018).
The complaint also alleges that nearly all wheelchair-accessible seats are too distant from the field and/or have obstructed views compared to other seats. The complaint argues that the ADA’s purpose was to promote equality through reasonable accommodations and disabled fans often miss out on experiences only gained from sitting close to the field.
Most wheelchair-accessible seats at the Cubs’, Orioles’ and Mariners’ ballparks are located at the top of the lower sections and at the bottom of the upper sections. Seattle fans are urging the stadium to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible seats in the first 15 rows of the stadium.
The Cubs’ Wrigley Field made renovations after the suit was filed in 2018 to include more wheelchair-accessible seating. The addition of the accessible seats at Wrigley also came after complaints regarding previous construction that resulted in a loss of seating behind home plate and in the bleachers.
The lawsuit against the Orioles for issues with Camden Yards originated from frustration with a wheelchair lift at the stadium that malfunctioned several times between July 2017 and May 2018. Complaint, Claypool, et al. v. Baltimore Orioles Limited Partnership, et al., No. 1:18-CV-03393 (Md. Cir. Ct. Sept. 28, 2018).
The Orioles fans, like the Mariners fans, point out that the wheelchair areas in the lower sections are directly behind the last row of seats, but are not elevated. Thus, standing spectators are an issue even for those fans who spend the money to sit closer to the field.
If the plaintiffs prevail in these lawsuits, the stadiums would require substantial renovations and may influence other teams to renovate their stadiums to avoid potential litigation.
Since 2004, nine MLB franchises have constructed new stadiums. In addition to complying with the ADA’s sightline requirement, several of these ballparks have gone above and beyond the ADA’s minimum requirements.
In 2004, the San Diego Padres opened Petco Park. Among other accommodations, Petco Park has outlets throughout the stadium for fans who need to charge their electric wheelchair during the game.
Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, opened in 2010. Every entrance into the ballpark is accessible for fans with disabilities. This level of accessibility exceeds the ADA’s requirement by 50%.
The Atlanta Braves opened their new stadium, SunTrust Park, in 2017. This stadium offers accessible seating with ADA compliant sightlines in more than 35 sections. Three of those sections are closer to home plate than the pitcher’s mound.
With newly constructed stadiums providing additional accommodations for fans with disabilities, the Orioles, Cubs and Mariners have a decision to make.
Adjusting one seat can be costly, requiring the removal of seats either in front or behind to comply with the ADA standards. The lost revenue from multiple lost seats can be significant not only from baseball games, but other entertainment and sporting events hosted in the parks.
While the costs of construction to create and enhance accommodations and revenue losses from capacity reduction are real, so are the costs of ongoing litigation and negative press for accessibility issues, and surely MLB clubs (and other sports and entertainment venue operators) are watching this litigation to help guide decisions for their own facilities.