Justices debate damages under disabilities act
By Gina Holland
Associated Press
Web Posted : 04/24/2002 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court debated Tuesday the punishment for cities that don't have wheelchair ramps and other accommodations for the disabled.
The question: Can local governments can be forced to pay punitive damages for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act?

Advocates for the disabled claim some cities are ignoring the landmark law because courts have not forced them to pay for violations. On the other side, cities argue that they cannot afford multiple costly lawsuits over things like street curbs.

A jury said Kansas City, Mo., should pay $1.2 million in punitive damages to a paraplegic man injured in 1992 while being taken to jail on a trespassing charge. The van did not have proper equipment.

Jeffrey Gorman said officers, despite his warnings, propped him on a bench in the van and strapped him in with his own belt. During the trip, he fell and injured his shoulder and back.

"They're not above the law even though they're the government," Gorman said. "They need to be punished."

He watched the arguments from the back of the courtroom, because of his wheelchair. "I've waited for a long time to get here," said Gorman, adding that he was disappointed because of the seating and had trouble hearing the justices.
When Congress passed the disabilities law, it did not specify if people could collect punitive damages for violations. Lawyers for the city and the United States argued that Congress never intended for cities to face large jury judgments.

Gregory Garre, with the Justice Department, said cities can be punished by the loss of federal funding.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist told Gorman's lawyer that the Supreme Court has shut down lawsuits in two recent cases, involving immigrants and federal inmates
housed in private prisons, who claim civil rights violations.

"We're taking a much more critical look at these kinds of claims," he said.
The court has also ruled that state workers cannot use the ADA to win money damages for on-the-job discrimination.

The case is Barnes v. Gorman, 01-682.
04/24/2002