In a first-of-its-kind ruling that could spur a ripple effect across the country, a federal judge found late last week that the city of Los Angeles is ill-prepared to meet the needs of residents with disabilities in the event of an emergency.

The decision came in a class action lawsuit brought against the city by two disability advocacy groups who claimed that the city’s emergency plans do not properly account for individuals with disabilities who may need accessible shelters, transportation, communications services or other assistance.

“The city’s practice of failing to address the needs of individuals with disabilities discriminates against such individuals by denying them meaningful access to the city’s emergency preparedness program,” U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said in the ruling. “Because of the city’s failure to address their unique needs, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to harm in the event of an emergency or disaster.”

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Attorneys for the city argued that the American Red Cross is responsible for helping people with disabilities in the event of an emergency despite having no formal agreement to that effect. What’s more, they said individuals themselves bear responsibility in planning for emergencies.

The judge was not swayed, however, saying that the city’s plan excludes residents simply because they have disabilities and that the plan is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Los Angeles officials were ordered to meet with the advocates who brought the suit within three weeks to discuss ways to improve the city’s emergency plan.

Disability advocates said poor emergency preparedness for people with disabilities is a national problem, citing casualties that occurred during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita due to poor planning.

“These will be life and death issues for thousands of people with disabilities in the event of a major disaster,” said Shawna L. Parks, legal director at the Disability Rights Legal Center, which brought the suit. “We are hopeful that other cities will examine their emergency preparations as a result of this lawsuit to avoid the needless loss of life during any future emergencies.”