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Chicago Cubs on trial over wheelchair access at Wrigley Field

The father of a boy with muscular dystrophy claims Wrigley Field has pushed Cubs fans with disabilities into "the worst seats in the house."

CHICAGO (CN) — Attorneys for the Chicago Cubs were in federal court for a bench trial Monday morning, defending the century-old baseball organization against accusations that it had violated the Americans with Disability Act.

According to those accusations, recent $1 billion renovations to the Cubs' Wrigley Field in Chicago removed much of the 109-year-old stadium's wheelchair-accessible seating.

What ADA seating still exists, attorney David Cerda said Monday in his opening statements, "is located in low visibility areas with poor angles."

Cerda first filed federal ADA charges against the Chicago Cubs in December 2017, on behalf of his son David Cerda Jr. who suffers from muscular dystrophy. Cerda Jr. is confined to a wheelchair, but is a lifelong Cubs fan, his father said.

"He attended his first game when he was only 3 months old," the elder Cerda said.

Prior to renovations that began at Wrigley Field in 2014 as part of the so-called 1060 Project, Cerda said he and his son would regularly attend games in a lower box wheelchair seating area behind home plate. By 2017, Cerda claimed, that seating area no longer existed.

As part of the renovations, it had been destroyed to make room for a bar.

"It's a textbook failure to integrate the seats according to the ADA," Cerda said.

The 1060 Project, named after Wrigley Field's address at 1060 W. Addison Street on Chicago's North Side, largely concluded in 2019 after five years of construction. Billed as a "long-awaited restoration and expansion of Wrigley Field," it updated the aging stadium's infrastructure and added numerous luxury amenities, including new premium seating areas, indoor restaurants and bars.

But Cerda argued that all these improvements came at the cost of shunting wheelchair-bound general admission fans to some of "the worst seats in the house." Per photo evidence Cerda provided in his opening statements, these seating areas are behind poles or beneath visibility-blocking terrace overhangs along the first and third baselines, and in ground-level covered alcoves where viewers are separated from the field by tinted glass.

"Sitting behind that dark pane of glass is like watching the game on a dark television... It's like being in a cave," Cerda said.

Cerda is not the only one to make these accusations. Federal prosecutors filed their own ADA violation suit against the Cubs last July, following an investigation into the stadium that began in 2019. Per that investigation, the government echoed Cerda's case by alleging the 1060 Project renovations eliminated several wheelchair-accessible general admission seating areas to make room for new amenities and high-priced luxury seats.

"Wrigley Field previously had 19 general admission wheelchair seats underneath the press box and directly behind home plate, but the Cubs eliminated these wheelchair seats to make room for the Catalina Club and moved them down the first and third base lines," the government's complaint claimed.

The government's case surmised that there are now only 44 wheelchair-accessible grandstand aisle seats in Wrigley Field, less than a quarter of the 187 such seats it said the stadium should have under the ADA. On Monday, Cerda and the Cubs' lawyers agreed that Wrigley Field actually needed even more wheelchair seating in order to be ADA-compliant - a total of 209 seats spread evenly across the stadium.

The Cubs' lead attorney Donna Welch claimed in her opening arguments Monday morning that because of the 1060 Project renovations, Wrigley Field had those seats and more. She counted a total of 225 wheelchair-accessible seats spread evenly across the stadium, counting 37 in the bleachers, 66 on the first level seats, 76 on the terrace level and 46 on the upper deck.

Welch disputed that Cerda Jr. no longer being able to access his preferred seating behind home plate counted as an ADA violation, so long as he could still access one of those 209 seats elsewhere.

"The Cubs need to provide disabled fans with [seating] choices, not the best seats in the house," Welch said, later adding that "one fan's individual preferences do not define the ADA."

Welch also argued that Wrigley Field's status as a national historic landmark - the only Major League Baseball stadium with that designation - meant any ADA considerations had to be weighed against preserving its historic footprint.

"Federal law requires that when a historic landmark is renovated, it provides ADA seating as much as is feasible... but without altering the historic nature of the building," she said.

As a bench trial, there is no jury to decide whether Wrigley Field really is in violation of the ADA. Instead, U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso, a Barack Obama appointee, will make that decision himself after the attorneys have finished presenting their cases. Alonso said in pretrial filings that he expects the trial to last through the end of this week.

No trial date has been set in the government's similar case against the Cubs.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Regional, Sports, Trials

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