Eastwood to take stand in lawsuit

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Actor to take stand in lawsuit -- Disability access contested at Eastwood's hotel



Mercury News

Dirty Harry is rolling into the San Jose federal courthouse this week, and it will be up to a jury to decide whether he's the good guy or the bad guy.

In a trial that begins Tuesday, Clint Eastwood will employ his world-famous squint in an attempt to stare down a lawsuit by a wheelchair-bound Alameda woman who claims the actor's historic Mission Ranch in Carmel violates state and federal disability laws.

Aside from the star power Eastwood will bring to the sleepy federal building, the otherwise ordinary court case has been transformed into a bit of a referendum on the 10-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act, a law the actor pointedly criticized in congressional hearings this spring.

Eastwood, owner of the Mission Ranch hotel and restaurant, told Congress that unscrupulous lawyers were using cases like the one against him to ``pervert'' the intent of the ADA in a quest for big legal fees. The former Carmel mayor was testifying before a committee considering legislation that would restrict when businesses could be sued under the law, and his comments provoked an outcry from disability-rights advocates.

Now, Diane zum Brunnen is hoping to make Eastwood squirm when he testifies in the upcoming trial, which will take place in U.S. District Judge James Ware's courtroom.

Zum Brunnen sued Eastwood three years ago, contending that she was humiliated and denied access to Mission Ranch facilities when she visited the bucolic resort on Carmel Bay in January 1996. Zum Brunnen, court papers say, went to the resort with her husband to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

But the woman, confined to a wheelchair since 1978 with multiple sclerosis, alleges that the resort had numerous violations of both the ADA and California regulations on providing access to the disabled, including access to its restrooms, hotel rooms, parking and entrances.

``The issue is pretty clear from our point of view that Mission Ranch was not accessible,'' said Oakland attorney John Burris, who represents zum Brunnen. ``From my point of view, it's not really a contest between us and Mr. Eastwood. But it doesn't help the cause of the ADA to have a world-famous person making negative statements about it.''

Monterey attorney Charles Keller, who represents the movie star, declined comment. But in court papers, Eastwood, who bought the 19th-century resort in 1986, has made his position clear: He considers the lawsuit frivolous.

Among other things, Eastwood maintains that he has done everything he can to upgrade the property and comply with government regulations as he has poured more than $6 million into renovating the resort, according to documents filed in August. As for zum Brunnen, Eastwood has called her a ``shill'' who either did not visit the ranch or came there as a pretext to file a lawsuit for lawyers who bring ADA lawsuits, court papers say.

In particular, Eastwood has said in court papers, as well as his congressional testimony, that zum Brunnen never notified him of problems at Mission Ranch before suing. The proposed legislation in Congress would require that businesses be warned of problems with access for the disabled before they could be sued under the ADA.

The actor, court documents show, rejected a settlement offer earlier this year from attorneys for the plaintiff who allegedly asked for nearly $500,000 in legal fees to resolve the case.

``These lawyers cloak themselves under the guise they're doing a favor for the disabled, when really they're doing a disservice,'' Eastwood said in May.

Eastwood's comments are expected to provoke protests outside the San Jose courthouse by disability-rights advocates.

``The case will have an impact because it's Clint Eastwood,'' said Linda Kilb, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a Berkeley-based group dedicated to enforcing the ADA. ``His current visibility on this issue is one more deterrent and one more obstacle."

Zum Brunnen's lawyers have accused Eastwood of improperly revealing the settlement discussions in ``an effort to prejudice the jury pool,'' according to court papers filed with Ware in August. Burris will say only that he doesn't consider the public comments by Eastwood ``particularly relevant'' to what the jury will hear in court.

Zum Brunnen is asking for unspecified damages and an injunction that would force Mission Ranch to make certain improvements for the disabled. Ware will decide the injunction, while the jury will decide whether the ranch is liable and whether the woman is entitled to damages.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), September 18, 2000


The ADA, another well intentioned government boondoggle that benefits fat-cat dickhead lawyers.

-- Uncle Deedah (unkeed@yahoo.com), September 18, 2000.

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