An uptick in accessibility lawsuits related to websites requires hoteliers to be mindful of American with Disabilities Act rules.
Here’s a trend that can spell trouble in the hotel space: a spike in lawsuits by visually impaired individuals against the owners and operators of websites not optimized for screen-reader technology.
Among the frequent targets are hoteliers, who’ve been on the receiving end of legal complaints and demand letters from plaintiffs’ attorneys claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law requiring that public places (read: hotels, restaurants and shops) be accessible to people with disabilities.
In the past, ADA disputes often involved an establishment’s failure to build a wheelchair ramp or install handrails. But in today’s digital world, with online reservations a critical cog in the wheel of commerce, the scope of ADA litigation has grown to include website-access lawsuits. Whether actual or threatened, these ADA claims have become prevalent for businesses across industries, including hospitality.
Exhibit A: InterContinental Hotels Group, which was recently hit with a class action filed in New York federal court by a legally blind gentleman who relies on screen-reading software to interact with websites. In Lopez v. Intercontinental Hotels Group Resources LLC, et al., the plaintiff alleges that the hotel chain—which includes such well-known brands as Kimpton, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Candlewood Suites—employs an online reservation system that fails to provide adequate information about accessibility features in guest rooms, which the plaintiff claims violates the ADA.
In view of the surge in claims, including the Lopez case, hoteliers need to know the prevailing judicial view—that the ADA and some state laws require them to make their websites accessible to visually impaired customers. To that end, websites must be coded to allow words to be converted to audio translations by way of screen-reading software.
An even newer trend in ADA cases requires video to be understood by visually impaired individuals (by way of adequate written descriptions of voiced content). Likewise, keyboard commands must be available so that those unable to handle a mouse can use a website’s interactive functions.
The failure to abide by the law can be quite costly. A hotel owner or operator who violates ADA regulations (or state laws) may be subject to compensatory, statutory and punitive damages and fines, not to mention the high price of litigation.
With more than 8 million visually impaired or blind people living in the U.S., sight-related ADA claims serve a legitimate purpose. Nevertheless, unscrupulous plaintiffs and lawyers have been known to take advantage of the well-intentioned law to squeeze companies (hotels included) for lucrative settlements. Unfortunately, for some, website-access lawsuits are about gaming the system for profit—not expanding access.
Whatever the case may be, hoteliers are urged to take steps to ensure ADA compliance with the widely accepted standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. In the absence of relevant governmental rules and procedures, WCAG aims to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals (including the disabled), organizations and governments.
The good news is that tools are available to check websites for legal incompatibilities (the same one many plaintiffs’ lawyers use). And for hoteliers not in compliance, the cost to implement necessary fixes doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank, though the expense will vary widely depending upon website complexity.
Cost aside, hotel owners and operators are strongly encouraged to be mindful of the ADA mandates and the uptick in associated case filings. Long story short: If you’re not in legal compliance, there may be a plaintiff out there gunning for you.
Jeremy Richardson is a partner in the New York office of Michelman & Robinson, LLP, a national law firm. He chairs M&R’s Intellectual Property Practice Group, and represents clients in matters related to IP, licensing, corporate issues and day-to-day operations. Jeremy can be contacted at 212-659-2557 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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