Quadriplegic man sues CompUSA over access Linthicum resident says barrier to prevent shoplifting violates law

January 03, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Charles Bowers is a software developer who would like nothing better than to drop by his neighborhood computer store to look for bargains.

Unfortunately, he says, the CompUSA store in Glen Burnie treats him more like a shoplifter than a customer.

The Linthicum man, who is quadriplegic, has filed suit in federal court against three Comp-USA stores in Maryland claiming they are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bowers says the entrances at the stores in Glen Burnie, Towson and Rockville are partially blocked by locked gates that require someone in a wheelchair to call an employee to gain access.

The gates, used to prevent shoplifting, are a barrier prohibited by ADA and "constitute a safety hazard in emergency situations," according to his suit in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

"I had been there a couple of times and had to wait and wait for someone to notice me and unlock the gate. I dealt with it until I got aggravated," Bowers said. "I spoke to the manager, and he didn't really care, and that's what irked me."

Bowers said that the barrier has an emergency release, but the gate must be pulled toward the user -- an action nearly impossible for someone in a wheelchair.

"I don't understand how this was allowed to happen, why a local building inspector would approve this design," said Bowers, who works for a Washington-area utility company.

The newest CompUSA store in Maryland, in Gaithersburg, has access that meets the requirements of the 1992 law.

Anne Arundel County inspectors review a building's access for the disabled during construction, but turnstiles and gates are considered minor improvements and often don't show up on blueprints, said spokesman John Morris.

The county will act on complaints, but "to the best of our knowledge, no one has filed a complaint yet about CompUSA," Morris said.

Bowers, 31, who suffered a spinal cord injury 11 years ago in a diving accident, doesn't want to be seen as a crusader. He wants to enjoy activities -- such as shopping -- that the able-bodied do.

"I have a good job and I make good money, but I can't go out and spend it," he said.

Carol Elfstrom, a spokeswoman for CompUSA, said yesterday the company does not comment on pending lawsuits.

vTC Bowers' suit is being handled by ACCESS Maryland, a pro bono program of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

"Our goal is to get compliance [with ADA], to nudge stores and say, 'Hey, this doesn't work,' " said Shawn Gritz, a Rockville lawyer.

ACCESS Maryland filed suit in 1996 against Towson Town Center, Westview Cinemas and a Staples store in New Carrollton for ADA violations. The suit was dropped after all three defendants modified their properties to accommodate the disabled.

"Most companies say, 'These are customers we don't want to lose. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.' " Gritz said. He said he hopes to avoid going to -trial in CompUSA case.

After Bowers' unsuccessful plea to the CompUSA manager, he contacted ACCESS Maryland. Gritz said he wrote a letter in May to company headquarters in Dallas. When he didn't get a reply, he wrote a second letter in October.

On Nov. 6, the Glen Burnie manager wrote to Gritz promising to take the issue up with his supervisors.

"But it was more than one store," said Gritz. "We wanted a corporate response."

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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