Emergency Preparedness for Individuals with Disabilities

Article excerpt

Savage v. City Place Limited Partnership

No. 240306-V

Cir. Ct. Montgomery County, Md

August 28, 2004

The importance of an effective emergency evacuation plan for people with disabilities was highlighted by the recent lawsuit referenced above. Katherine Savage, a wheelchair user, was shopping at Marshalls, a major clothing retailer, when the fire alarm sounded and customers were told to evacuate the store, located on the second floor of a shopping mall. However, the mall's elevators were inoperable due to the emergency, leaving the only accessible exit route by stairs. Given her physical limitations, Savage was unable to escape until after the emergency was over.

The Trial

Savage and a disability advocacy group sued Marshalls for negligence and false imprisonment as well as for violations of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In their claims for violation of the ADA, the plaintiffs alleged that Marshalls failed to "design evacuation procedures that comply with Title III of the ADA." A Title III violation occurs where the place of public accommodation "fail[s] to make reasonable modification in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such [goods and services] ... to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services,... or accommodations" (42 U.S.C. [section] 12182[b] [2] [A] [ii]).

Marshalls argued that its evacuation plans could not violate the ADA since Title III does not contain any specific rules for a public accommodation's emergency evacuation plans. Plaintiffs cited the Casey Martin decision (PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin) to argue that Title III applies to Marshalls' policies, and the court agreed, stating that "a store's nationwide evacuation procedures would certainly constitute a public accommodation's policies." Marshalls then argued that modifying its evacuation procedures at all of its 673 stores would pose an administrative burden. On this issue, "the plaintiff has the burden of proving the reasonableness of the modification while the defendant has the burden of proving that modification would fundamentally alter the nature of the public accommodation (Johnson v. Gambrinus Company/Spoetzl Brewery). Finding that both sides raised issues and presented evidence to satisfy their respective burdens, both plaintiff's and defendant's motions for summary judgment were denied. The case was settled on March 29, 2005. As part of the settlement, Marshalls agreed to redevelop the evacuation procedures at all stores nationwide.

The Wider Context

The Savage case is not an isolated incident and is perhaps more reflective of a common safety concern faced by people with disabilities on a daily basis. The importance of an emergency evacuation plan has gained attention once again with the recent natural disasters associated with the tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. An estimated 250,000 people died from the tsunami, and according to FEMA, almost 300,000 people were evacuated and safely housed in shelters in over 20 states and the District of Columbia due to the destruction from the hurricanes. An important component of any effective evacuation plan is the strategy employed by local emergency management to accommodate individuals with disabilities during emergency evacuation efforts. Plans typically are designed with able-bodied individuals in mind, for whom escape or rescue involves walking, running, driving, seeing, hearing and quickly responding to instructions, alerts, and evacuation announcements. However, for people with disabilities, these routine tasks are often difficult if not impossible. Many of those who perished from those disasters could not vacate the premises.

Recognizing this barrier, in 2004, President George W. Bush created a new governmental entity intended to better integrate people with disabilities into the national emergency preparedness effort. …