ADA Lawsuits Regarding Sightlines Could Lead to Expensive MLB Stadium Renovations

Major League Baseball (MLB) organizations and their stadiums are facing expensive potential renovations to adhere to The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)  guidelines following numerous lawsuits. This includes a lawsuit filed on behalf of four disabled Seattle Mariners fans in 2018 along with separate lawsuits against the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs. The ADA requires qualified employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and imposes accessibility requirements on public accommodations.

The lawsuits allege that some MLB stadiums fail to comply with the modern guidelines of the ADA. Stadiums built prior to the clarity of ADA guidelines, which were finalized in 2010, are at risk for costly changes. The allegations in these suits claim that wheelchair seats in these stadiums do not provide proper sightlines over spectators as required by the ADA. Furthermore, the lawsuit against the Seattle Mariners alleges, according to the initial complaint, that nearly all wheelchair-accessible seats are distant from the field or have obstructed views compared to other seats. The four disabled fans in the Mariners’ lawsuit argue that their stadium must greatly increase the number of wheelchair accessible seats near the playing field, specifically those in the first 15 rows, to give disabled fans the same experience as those without disabilities.

Conrad Reynoldson, an attorney with the nonprofit firm Washington Civil and Disability Advocate, stated in 2018 that fans who require wheelchairs “. . . can’t have the same experience of being in the front row where they can hear the players talking, can see the action . . . they just want to feel like they’re given the same opportunity to enjoy the game like anybody else.” However, defendants in the Mariners’ stadium case argued in their opposition to motion for summary judgment that, “. . . when T-Mobile Park was being designed and constructed, there was no statutory requirement or applicable regulation that made clear any sightline requirement for standing spectators. There was no specific requirement, much less implementation guidelines, for architects and engineers to follow, and even informed lawyers would have been unable to offer concrete advice but only speculation.”

To comply with modern ADA requirements, MLB stadiums that do not adhere to these guidelines will need to undergo significant renovations. The ultimate question is whether these stadiums must comply with the new, more specific ADA guidelines or the previous, more ambiguous guidelines that these stadiums adhered to when initially built. According to Law360, 13 stadiums opened between 1994, when the U.S. Department of Justice changed its interpretation of sightlines, and 2004, when the ADA Access Board posted updated guidelines. These guidelines included the requirement of ensuring that those with disabilities can see over fans who are standing in front of them.

The defendants in these lawsuits argue that the venues in question were designed, planned, and built before the interpretation switched. The results of these MLB lawsuits, if ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, could perhaps force costly renovations to older stadiums and arenas across the United States. Until these lawsuits conclude, the debate over whether these stadiums must change will continue.

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