9th Circuit Seeks Assistance on Damages
(CN) - The 9th Circuit on Tuesday asked the California Supreme Court for help in deciding whether a paraplegic who encountered multiple barriers to getting around in Long Beach should get $440,000 in damages or a mere $17,000.
Long Beach resident Larry Beauchamp filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 over several of the city's curbs, which he claimed were improperly cut and not maintained for easy wheelchair access. The district court found that the alleged barriers violated the California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA), and awarded Beauchamp $17,000 based on four barriers that he frequently encountered during a specified time period.
Unsatisfied, Beauchamp took the issue to the 9th Circuit, arguing that he was entitled to $440,000 in damages. He argued that the CDPA allows damages for each distinct denial of access, which Beauchamp counted as 440 separate occasions.
The federal appeals court said that California law is ambiguous as to whether CDPA offenses eligible for damages should be counted individually or aggregated "in order to ensure that damages ... remain reasonable and commensurate with the defendant's culpability."
The circuit court certified the following question to the California Supreme Court:
"Section 54.3(a) of the California Civil Code provides that a person who violates the California Disabled Persons Act (CDPA), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 54, 54.1, is liable for actual damages for 'each offense . . . but in no case less than one thousand dollars ($1,000).' Does the phrase 'each offense' refer to each occasion when a plaintiff encounters a barrier that denies the plaintiff full and equal access to a public facility, or should a trial court construe 'each offense' more narrowly, particularly in situations where a plaintiff repeatedly encounters the same barrier? If the phrase 'each offense' is not susceptible to a narrower construction, under what circumstances would the penalty scheme in section 54.3 violate the due process clause of the state constitution?"