Denver Post, Colorado.
Friday, July 28, 2006.
A federal judge in Denver on Thursday approved a $16.25 million settlement and a $60 million revamp of Kmart stores nationwide to make them more accessible to people with disabilities.
In the biggest disability-access settlement in U.S. history, Kmart pledged to improve access to all 1,420 of its stores within the next seven years.
"It feels great," said Carrie Ann Lucas, a deaf, legally blind wheelchair-user who sued for better access in 1999. "I'm thrilled that we are not only going to have access here (in Colorado), but across the country."
Lucas, 34, who has advanced neuromuscular disease, has been a Kmart shopper since she was a child.
Her dispute with the national discount retailer began when she found that a Kmart store near her home didn't have the necessary handicapped van parking space and had aisles that were too narrow and checkout lines that were impassible for wheelchair- and scooter-using customers.
She became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that became a nationwide class-action against Kmart.
The suit demanded that Kmart improve accessibility to its stores, including making shopping racks and appliances easy to reach.
On Thursday, Lucas grinned from ear to ear as Judge John Kane declared the settlement a model of justice achieved.
"It is very difficult to find justice," said Kane, a veteran U.S. district judge. "But you develop a gestalt when justice has been achieved, and I think that happened in this case.
"I would say any lawyer ... should examine this file to see how a class-action should be handled," he added. "The rights and obligations of all the parties have been represented, and this has not taken on the aspects of a barroom brawl."
Lucas' attorneys in the case were awarded $3.2 million in fees, which Kane described as modest for a class-action case of this type.
Lucas receives $10,000 and the rest of the settlement goes to those covered by the suit.
Lucas, who earned her law degree from the University of Denver in 2005, called the settlement and planned revamp by Kmart "very fair, very adequate and goes above and beyond" what regulations require. Amy Bateson, the in-house lawyer for Kmart, is advising the many departments of Kmart on the settlement and giving them timelines and deadlines. In addition, she said, Kmart has formed a "settlement task force" to ensure the terms are carried out.
Kmart has hired two architects to oversee the seven-year renovation.
The company said it will bring all its stores into compliance with federal accessibility regulations, will ensure that its aisles are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, that its rest rooms and fitting rooms will be accessible and that one accessible checkout lane is open at all times.
Compliance will be monitored using "mystery shoppers" as well as customer feedback through the Internet and a toll-free hotline. The company said it will do many more things to help the disabled as well.
Lucas said that Kmart is an important store in the lives of wheelchair users because it offers one-stop shopping.
"I'm a single mom with three kids. I need to get in and get out. This will make it so easy to get in and out," Lucas said.
"We've been very impressed with Kmart and their new management and the efforts of Kmart personnel," said Amy Robertson, the Denver lawyer who was the lead attorney for Lucas. "We look forward to working with them over the next six or seven years."
Staff writer Howard Pankratz can be reached at 303-820-1939 or email@example.com.
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