Landmark Lawsuit Against Los Angeles for Failure to Include PWDs in Disaster Planning
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Landmark Lawsuit Against Los Angeles for Failure to Include PWDs in Disaster Planning

A lawsuit was filed in Federal Court against the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles to address their failure to adequately plan to meet the needs of people with disabilities in an emergency. The suit highlights a national problem, and one made especially evident during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, during which people with disabilities had their lives put at risk because of a lack of planning for this vulnerable population. The case is one of the first of its kind in the country and the most comprehensive filed to date.

Plaintiffs – Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (“CALIF”), and Audrey Harthorn – charge that the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles have violated federal civil rights laws designed to provide people with disabilities equal access to emergency services. These violations include:

· Failure to ensure that emergency evacuation and transportation plans include accessible transportation;
· Failure to ensure that emergency notification plans include accessible forms of notification; and
· Failure to ensure that emergency shelter plans include accessible emergency shelters.

Plaintiffs are represented by two non-profit law firms that specialize in high-impact cases on behalf of people with disabilities: Disability Rights Legal Center, located Los Angeles, and Disability Rights Advocates, headquartered in Berkeley, California.

“As an independent living center serving people with all types of disabilities in L.A., we are very aware of the City’s and County’s shortcomings in this area,” said Lillibeth Navarro, executive director of CALIF. “During the City’s most recent disaster drill, our hearing impaired constituents couldn’t understand the announcements and had no idea what they were supposed to do. People we serve who have mobility impairments don’t know which shelter they should go to in an emergency, or whether any of the City’s shelters will be accessible. The whole situation is a mess, and may have tragic consequences if we don’t do something about it soon.”

“For me this isn’t a policy debate or an academic issue; it’s a matter of personal safety,” said Audrey Harthorn, the other named plaintiff in the suit, who resides in Van Nuys and uses a wheelchair for mobility. “I live alone and have no family nearby, so if there was an earthquake or fire, I’m afraid that I’d be trapped in my apartment. I can’t evacuate on my own and if I couldn’t reach a phone to call 911 or the phones weren’t working, no one would know I needed help. I hope this lawsuit will prompt Los Angeles to do what it should have done a long time ago and provide for the needs of its residents with disabilities during emergencies.”

The City of Los Angeles is particularly disaster-prone and susceptible to a variety of emergencies, including earthquakes, fires, landslides, and terrorist attacks. According to Los Angeles County records, Los Angeles County has declared a state of emergency over twenty-four (24) times since 1980. In the 1990’s, Los Angeles County was among the most disaster-prone areas in the U.S., with severe floods in 1992, 1993, 1995 and 1998, fires in 1993 and 1996, civil unrest in 1992, windstorms in 1997, and the Northridge Earthquake in January of 1994.

These declared disasters have resulted in billions of dollars in financial damage, hundreds of fatalities and many thousands of injuries. They provide a mere glimpse of both the area’s disaster-ridden past and the potential for devastation in future disasters.

Shawna L. Parks, Director of Litigation at the Disability Rights Legal Center, explains the urgency of the situation: “There’s no telling when the next disaster will strike Los Angeles, and we can’t afford to wait until then to solve these problems. We can’t afford another Katrina where seniors and people with disabilities were left behind, often to die, because nobody helped them to evacuate in time. Los Angeles needs to make sure that every aspect of its emergency response plan, from notifying people of danger to evacuating them to providing shelter, is accessible to people with disabilities, both because the law requires it and because it’s the right thing to do. The City and County have a duty to protect all of their residents during times of disaster, and that includes people with disabilities.”

The Los Angeles Almanac reports that 20.39% of the population of Los Angeles County, or 1,775,009 residents, have disabilities. According to the 2006 U.S. Census, American Community Survey, up to 445,639 residents of the City of Los Angeleshave disabilities. The survey also estimates that up to 385,032 residents, or 10% of Los Angeles’ population, are 65 years of age or older.

Plaintiffs are seeking only injunctive relief. “This is literally a matter of life and death,” explains Sid Wolinsky, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates, and an attorney representing Plaintiffs. “Although the City of Los Angeles could be liable for damages, Plaintiffs are not pursuing them in this lawsuit. Our focus is on fixing a serious problem and not leaving people with disabilities to fend for themselves in a disaster.”

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