An 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who says she’s suffered lifelong disabilities from Nazi experiments at a concentration camp has filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the Eugene area bus system, claiming it wrongfully banned her and her assistance dog.
Brigitte Tempel’s lawsuit, filed Monday in Lane County Circuit Court, says her long-haired Chihuahua detects oncoming seizures and the dog needs to sit on her lap or be near her upper body to pick up on cues of an oncoming episode.
But a bus driver with the Lane Transit District didn’t believe her, says the suit.
The driver told Tempel in May 2016 that she wasn’t allowed to ride the bus unless the dog was confined to an approved carrier that Tempel says doesn’t allow the dog to detect seizures, according to the suit.
A public safety officer with the transit district was standing outside the bus at the time, but also didn’t believe Tempel and banned her from riding the bus, the suit states.
Therese Lang, a spokeswoman for the transit district, declined comment Tuesday, citing pending litigation.
The transit district’s website states that service animals “that have been trained to perform a specific task to assist with a disability are welcome aboard” with some conditions, including that the animals are leashed and aren’t aggressive toward others. But the website doesn’t explain if or how a driver is supposed to determine whether an animal is a legitimate “service animal.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act states that businesses — including public transportation companies, such as the Lane Transit District and TriMet — must allow a person to enter with their service animals. But first, they can ask two questions: Is the animal is a service animal and what task it performs.
The topic is controversial, in part because some argue that people without disabilities have taken advantage of the system by lying so they can travel with their pets. Read past stories here and here about TriMet’s struggles with the issue.
The lawsuit cites Oregon law, which forbids organizations that serve the public from denying access because of the presence of an assistance animal, but allows those organizations to require leashes. The law also says it’s illegal to ask a person with a disability for documentation that the animal is a legitimate assistance animal.
According to the advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon, a “service animal” is an animal that’s “trained to do a task or service directly related to a disability.” State law uses the term “assistance animal” to describe the same thing.
Tempel’s lawsuit states Tempel’s dog has been trained to alert her when she needs to sit on the floor or lie down, so she doesn’t fall and hurt herself when a seizure strikes.
“She has notes from doctors saying it’s potentially life-threatening not to have this dog close to her upper body,” said Andrew Lewinter, Tempel’s Eugene attorney.
Tempel said she was born a healthy child, and many of her multiple disabilities were caused by the Nazis, who imprisoned her at a northern Germany concentration camp from 1943 to 1945. She was 9 years old when she arrived, and the Nazis injected her with all sorts of substances as they experimented on her, she said.
Tempel said at age 19, she escaped East Germany, but had to swim across a river and under explosive mines to do it. She said she was shot in the leg during the escape, and the injury has worsened over her life — causing her to use a walker.
“The pain I feel now is because of what they did to me,” Tempel said.
She immigrated to the U.S. when she was 24, she said.
The lawsuit states that Tempel now must use other transportation to get around. She seeks compensation for those costs, as well as damages for emotional distress and loss of dignity.
— Aimee Green
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