Cubs fan who uses wheelchair sues, says Wrigley Field violates disabilities act

A 20-year-old Cubs fan who uses a wheelchair is alleging in a lawsuit that Wrigley Field renovations have eliminated or excluded some handicapped-accessible seating at the stadium in violation of federal law.

David F. Cerda, who has muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since age 10, says in his federal lawsuit that the Cubs owners’ $750 million renovation project removed wheelchair-accessible sections in the right-field bleachers where he had long enjoyed watching games and replaced them with a bar. The team also pushed the accessible seats behind home plate back several rows, making it impossible to see the “whole field of play” when spectators in front of him were standing, according to the lawsuit.

The owners’ decisions seem driven more by profits rather than concern for the law or accommodating all of their fans, said Cerda’s father, David A. Cerda, an attorney known for handling police misconduct litigation, who filed the lawsuit on his son’s behalf. The Cubs in their renovation work “have a duty to comply” with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirement that “wheelchair spaces be an integral part of the seating plan,” the lawsuit says. He recalled how his son once met Cubs owner Tom Ricketts in the wheelchair-accessible section of the right-field bleachers, shaking his hand not long after the Ricketts family bought the team in 2009.

Five years later, the bleachers were demolished.

“I really don't understand how they could do what they did,” Cerda’s father said. “They tore the right and left bleachers to the ground. When you rebuild it from the ground up, it’s a new building and you have to comply with the ADA.”

The right-field bleachers, which were torn down along with the left-field bleachers in 2014 as part of an expansion that added 300 seats, now have a bar and ticketing area where the accessible seating was previously located, the lawsuit states. While the left-field bleachers didn’t have accessible seating before the rehab, none was added during the renovation, though a bar was installed there, too, according to the lawsuit.

A Cubs spokesman declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Cerda said his son remains a Cubs fan but misses the opportunity to sit out in the sun in the right-field bleachers. The two now typically sit in accessible seating in a standing-room-only section under the grandstand “with obstructed views,” he said.

“The best ones were behind home plate and right field bleachers,” he said.

The seating area in the front row behind home plate has been moved back further from home plate, he alleges in his lawsuit. The Cubs are building a 7,200-square-foot “VIP experience” called the American Airlines 1914 Club under the seats between the dugouts behind home plate, but the team has not said whether it will restore the accessible front-row seats there, the lawsuit says. That new area is expected to open at the start of the 2018 season.

At Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Cerda says in his lawsuit, the team built similar luxury area under the lower box seats but also has wheelchair accessible seating in the front row.

“(Cerda) has suffered damages because he has not and cannot enjoy seating at Wrigley Field which complies with the ADA,” he says in his lawsuit.

The lawsuit isn’t the first complaint over accessibility at Wrigley Field. Marla Donato, a former Tribune reporter who left the paper in 2002, attended a game in 2015 during a time she was using a wheelchair as she recovered from an accident and subsequent surgeries to repair a badly broken leg and ankle.

“It turned into a nightmare,” said Donato, who had attended games at the stadium since 1968. “I’ve never been back to Wrigley Field and I think I would have a really hard time going again even though I’m walking now; it’s really soured me on the whole experience.”

At the box office, Donato was told a seat near a restroom would cost an extra $60, she said. With the elevators out, it took both her husband and a young stadium staffer tremendous effort to push her up the ramps. Donato ended up sitting in an aisle behind the last row of seats in the Terrace Reserved section, though staffers later moved her to an upper deck behind home plate.

But with no elevators, the couple left the game early to navigate the steep ramps back to street level. She wrote a first-person account of her experience for CityLab, an urban-focused online offshoot of The Atlantic, and is not affiliated with the federal lawsuit.

The Cubs have finished the third year of what’s expected to be a five-year renovation project at 1060 W. Addison St. that has already added a huge video screen in left field, an outdoor plaza and a 175-room boutique hotel that’s expected to open early this year.

Cerda’s lawsuit alleges that the ADA requires the team to “provide wheelchair spectators with choices of seating locations and view angles that are substantially equivalent to, or better than, the choices of seating locations and viewing angles available to other spectators.” It asks the Cubs to place accessible seating in the left and right field bleachers that complies with the federal law, restoring the lower box seating behind home plate as well as add front-row seating there and to pay Cerda’s legal fees.

The elder Cerda said the judge hearing the case does have the power to order a remedy as extreme as rebuilding the bleachers.

“They can be ordered to rebuild the stadium to comply with the ADA,” he said.

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke

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