Judge: Emotional Pain of Being Trapped on a Disneyland Ride Is Worth $4,000

A lawsuit brought by a quadriplegic who says he suffered a life-threatening nightmare was designed to address discrimination at the theme park.
"It's a Small World" at Disneyland

Imagine being stuck on the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland for 40 minutes. Worse, think about being a quadriplegic trapped on the attraction, unable to move as the other patrons are being evacuated, the music is blaring and an employee at the Anaheim amusement park is insisting on an immediate exit from the tunnel.

In 2009, Jose Martinez found himself in that position. With his wife by his side and his blood pressure rising, Martinez says he experienced dysreflexia, a life-threatening nervous-system response to overstimulation.

Eventually, he got out, but a lawsuit filed two years later described Martinez's horror. According to the complaint: "Mr. Martinez suffered extreme emotional distress and feared that he was going to die as he remained trapped on the ride. Mr. Martinez also felt extremely humiliated and embarrassed at having been singled out by this discriminatory treatment in Disneyland's inability to evacuate him from the ride."

What's that worth?

Last week, after a bench trial, U.S. District Court Judge James Selna delivered an answer: $4,000 for pain and suffering. (An additional $4,000 was ordered for a minor premises-related infraction.)

The lawsuit was filed in 2011. It was brought with the aid of the Disability Rights Legal Center, likely seeing a good opportunity to address alleged discrimination at Disney theme parks.

Not only did the lawsuit talk about Martinez's 40 minutes of hell, but it also discussed the alleged fact that he couldn't access 75 percent of the rides at Disneyland, including Pirates of the Caribbean. It took issue with the lack of family restroom facilities, which  were allegedly required by Martinez's condition. It addressed the "excessive slopes and cross slopes, loose and damaged surfaces, incorrectly constructed curb ramps and lack of curb ramps," all of which allegedly obstructed Martinez from getting treatment for his dysreflexia on the day in question.

His lawyers demanded a broad injunction that would order Disney to alter its policies, practices and procedures and afford full and equal enjoyment of the theme park for people with disabilities.

The judge delivered a partial victory.

Disney was able to defeat claims of violating the American with Disabilities Act, so there won't be any injunction issued. The company, however, was fined $4,000 on a separate discrimination claim relating to the height of the counter at the first-aid section, which Disney says it now has resolved.

On the other hand, on the negligence claim, Selna found Disney liable for not foreseeing and preventing what happened to Martinez, but the company was penalized only $4,000 for his pain and suffering. The tale of woe offered by the plaintiff -- including being "distraught and embarrassed" when employees dressed as Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse showed up at the first-aid station -- didn't gain much sympathy from the judge in calculating the damages.

However, there's another part of the ruling that might be more important. According to David Geffen, who represented Martinez at trial, the judge determined that Disney had a duty to warn its guests with disabilities that rides might break down and that they might become stuck.

The financial recovery for Martinez might be modest, but Geffen says this could bear on Disney's liability for "the next person that comes along" with a claim -- that is, if the theme park doesn't address the situation.

A Disney spokesperson said in a statement, "Disneyland Resort believes it provided all appropriate assistance to Mr. and Mrs. Martinez when the ride temporarily stopped and is disappointed that the court did not fully agree."

The Hollywood Reporter has inquired about whether Disney plans to address the issue of warnings given to those with disabilities at its theme parks and expects to provide an answer here soon.

Email: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner