Federal ruling and new guidelines allow ‘testers’ to go to court
Small-business owners face a growing number of disabled-access lawsuits in the wake of a recent appeals court ruling giving rise to disabled “testers,” as well as the release of detailed federal specifications for curb ramps, self-opening doors and other standards, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
For the year through June 30, plaintiffs filed 1,939 lawsuits under a section of the federal disability law setting out accessibility requirements for businesses and other public places. That’s up nearly 55% from the year before says WSJ, according to the law firm that reviewed court records.
Many of the lawsuits originated in California, New York and Florida, and most ended in quick settlements, often of less than $10,000.
The Wall Street Journal cites the example of Miami’s Arbetter Hot Dogs, a 1,000-square-foot family-owned luncheonette. In November, a disabled customer filed a lawsuit against the hot dog shop in U.S. District Court in Miami, on the grounds that he was “denied full, safe and equal access” because the 60-year-old building lacked fixed floor mats and accessible restrooms, among 28 other alleged violations, according to the complaint. The restaurant eventually settled the lawsuit at a cost of roughly $10,000 in renovations and $14,000 in legal fees.
The U.S. government also files lawsuits against businesses, among other enforcement measures. However, federal disability laws were intended to empower private citizens to bring claims. In the eyes of many advocates for the disabled, such lawsuits are a necessary tool to prod business owners, especially those who might be inclined to ignore letters asking for compliance with the federal requirements.
Yet some business owners say the lawsuits accomplish little more than providing revenue to attorneys. That is because under federal law, plaintiffs can’t win damages, although they are entitled to seek reimbursement of their attorneys’ fees. Business owners may then be in the position to pay both their own and the plaintiff’s legal bills. Settlements can cost business owners anywhere from a few thousand dollars, to hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations.
Most business owners say they want to provide accessibility options for disabled customers. But once barriers to access are identified, many say the legal process of defending themselves from lawsuits is too onerous.