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By Price Barker, Brian Carnie, and Michael Lowe

Disability access lawsuits have become a cottage industry and they have found their way into Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas.  Most are brought by the serial litigants working with same law firm.  These plaintiffs visit a business for the primary purpose of discovering an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility violation and then file a federal court lawsuit without giving the property owner, tenant or business advance notice of their complaint or an opportunity to fix the problems.

Now we are seeing a growing trend of “drive by” or “Google” disability access lawsuits.  The tag “drive-by” lawsuit came about due to accusations in many of these cases that either the plaintiff, or their lawyer, simply drove by the business, observed an alleged violation, and then filed suit.  The tag “Google lawsuit” arose from the belief of several business owners who have been sued that the ADA violations (such as the failure to have a lift seat at a hotel swimming pool) were discovered using Google earth.  In “drive-by” or “Google” lawsuits, the plaintiff almost always seeks attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees, and other litigation costs, as well as other concessions from the business they have sued.  Under federal law, business owners often have to pay both sets of attorneys’ fees, and if they do not settle, or make the corrections to their property demanded in the suit, it may end up costing them many thousands of dollars more, leading to accusations that these suits are simply money-making ventures for the plaintiff bar.

The ADA was passed by Congress in 1990.  Every private business in the United States open to the public must comply with the ADA.  This includes restaurants, bars, convenience stores, hospitals, hotels, shopping centers, and other retail locations.  The accessibility requirements of the ADA are very specific, and extensive.  There are thousands of requirements to be found in the 275-page ADA manual, which has specific requirements for things such as the slope and length of wheelchair ramps, the location and signage for handicap parking spots, and the height and location of door handles, sinks, toilets, and grab rails.

ADA access litigation is not limited to parking lots, sidewalks, restrooms and other alleged physical barriers in a “brick and mortar” establishment.  A growing number of lawsuits are being filed claiming that the business’ Web site does not provide adequate accessibility to the visually or hearing impaired.  Since 2010, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) has delayed issuing specific regulatory guidance directly addressing the accessibility standards for commercial Web sites.  That does not mean that businesses do not have to try to comply with the general requirements of the ADA, nor does it prevent DOJ enforcement or suits by private plaintiffs.

Numerous ADA access lawsuits have been filed in federal court in Shreveport.  One of the recently filed claims is a class-action filed by a registered sex offender against a local municipality, claiming that the office where he is required to register as a sex offender is now violating the ADA by not providing him with a sign language interpreter.

So what should a business owner do to avoid this expensive headache?  A good starting point is to make your business an unattractive target.  Visit your location to see if there are any obvious ADA violations that would catch the attention of a “drive-by” plaintiff.  For example, look for un-ramped entrance steps, poorly maintained routes from handicap parking spaces to the entrance, handicap parking spaces with no access aisle, and observe the slope of your handicap parking spaces.  If you can see a slope, it is probably non-compliant.  And if you can see the slope, you can bet the plaintiff driving by will too.