Editor’s Note: Christine Taylor, a graduate of UCLA School of Law, is an associate at Towne, Ryan and Partners P.C., a law firm with attorneys licensed in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and New Jersey. Taylor has grown up in the camping industry, her family has owned three campgrounds in both the Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) and Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort franchise systems.
As written about prolifically by campground owners, web developers, and lawyers alike, the American with Disabilities Act has brought an onslaught of new lawsuits against business owners. From big corporations to small mom and pop businesses — no one has been “safe.”
At its creation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to provide equal access to those with disabilities. Businesses, as well as campgrounds, saw this translated into the need for ramp access to their stores, recreation halls, and even rental units. Campground owners began to put in pool lifts or new zero-entry pools. You learned about turning radius in rooms and compliant bathrooms from grab bars to shower entry.
Recently, the ADA has been extended to include things that were not contemplated when the act went into law. The first change was when those with disabilities, specifically deaf and blind consumers, began to sue or send demand letters to businesses regarding the compliance of business websites.
Business owners have spent thousands of dollars defending these lawsuits. Ultimately, business owners did not want to exclude any consumer and had spent money making a “compliant” website. However, there is no real legal standard for compliance — ultimately this means you can be sued for your website anyway as many businesses found out. Most judges choose not to dismiss these lawsuits without the use of an expert witness who could attest to how the website was compliant with the ADA.
About 90% of the lawsuits result in a settlement, as it is cheaper to settle with the disabled consumer than it is to pay an attorney to litigate, which guarantees no result and could end with the business being on the hook for both the plaintiff and their own attorney fees.
Next, a bunch of lawsuits cropped up regarding the lack of subtitles on the television screens at gas pumps. Ultimately these cases ended the same way, with one exception – a judge in Florida recognized a particular plaintiff’s attorney as abusing the ADA. You see, the ADA does not actually provide monetary relief for the plaintiff. The ADA provides only for an injunction forcing the business to remedy the issue and attorney fees. Thus, by settling over and over again the plaintiff and their attorney were making money off a statute — which was not its intended purpose. The judge barred that particular attorney from bringing similar lawsuits in that jurisdiction for this and some other legal reasons.
Now lawsuits have been brought against a variety of gift card issuers for failure to provide braille embossed gift cards. They demand identifying information such as the company name to be added in braille.
What does this mean for you? We are likely to continue to see lawsuits of a wide variety pushing the limits of the applicability of the ADA. As a campground owner, there has never been an intention to exclude customers from your property — so start making changes. Ask your customers with disabilities what features, from your advertising to your accommodations, would make it easier for them to enjoy their stay.
Look to local disability groups to “test” your website and property. Hire web-developers who know what to do to make your website accessible, provide a phone number for people to call if they need assistance, create an ADA action plan that you can provide that shows your plan to update your business to be more accommodating.
I know you’re thinking I started by talking about how businesses got sued even after making changes. Ultimately — everything you do provides a better defense in the case of a lawsuit and makes you less of a target.
Lastly, reach out to your lobbyist, senator or representative and let them know that you are looking for a clear direction in the law as to how to accommodate people with disabilities. Until the law is clearer, the limits of the ADA will be tested and these cases will progress without dismissal.