High Court to Hear Liability Case

.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court will consider this spring if cities should be shielded from some lawsuits by the disabled, another case that could narrow a federal disability law.

Justices agreed Friday to review an appeal from Kansas City, Mo., which was ordered to pay more than $2 million to a paraplegic man injured while being taken to jail.

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 court has another chance to continue a trend of narrowing the federal law that requires the accommodations, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. Earlier this week, the court made it more difficult for workers to demand special treatment when they suffer partial physical disabilities such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

At issue here is government protection from punitive damages in lawsuits like the one filed by Jeffrey Gorman, who uses a wheelchair. Gorman warned officers before he was injured that their van did not have special equipment to transport him safely after his arrest at a country-western bar, his lawyer told the Supreme Court.

Cities argue that ADA cases could bankrupt governments. Sacramento City Attorney Samuel L. Jackson said Friday that municipal leaders are not intentionally violating the law and should not face costly judgments.

Chai Feldblum, a law professor at Georgetown University, said punitive damages were designed to deter wrongful behavior.

``A city agency that acts with complete disregard for someone's rights should be subject to punitive damages, and other cities should sit up and take note,'' she said.

The Supreme Court also:

Agreed to rule whether it is constitutional for a judge, not a jury, to decide if a convicted murderer receives a death sentence. The court's decision could affect nearly 800 death sentences in nine states. The case is from Arizona, where juries are responsible for deciding guilt or innocence, but judges decide the sentence. The case is Ring v. Arizona, 01-488.

Said it would determine if colleges can be sued for giving out information about students, like allegations of sexual assault. Gonzaga University will argue that a graduate cannot sue the university, which gave information to a state agency considering hiring him. Gonzaga University v. Doe, 01-679.

Agreed to spell out how much flexibility the IRS has in calculating taxes that businesses owe from employees' tips in a case involving San Francisco restaurant Fior d'Italia. At issue is employers' share of FICA taxes and how the IRS determines if taxes were underpaid. United States v. Fior d'Italia Inc., 01-463.

In the Gorman case, lawyer John M. Simpson said he was removed from his wheelchair, propped on a bench in the van, and tied with his belt. During the trip to the jail, he fell and injured his shoulder and back.

Kansas City is not contesting the 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 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled last year in the Gorman case that he could seek punitive damages. Justices will review that decision.

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