Vision-Impaired Customer of Grocery Chain Becomes First Plaintiff to Win ADA Website Accessibility Claim After Trial

A lawsuit against grocery chain Winn-Dixie became the first case of its kind to produce a decision holding, after a trial, that a public accommodation violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) because its website was inaccessible to a customer with a disability.  Not only does the case drive home the threat of website accessibility claims, but the court’s order provides valuable guidance on bringing websites into compliance with the ADA.

Accessibility of the Winn-Dixie Website

The plaintiff (Juan Carlos Gil) is legally blind.  He began shopping at Winn-Dixie because of its low prices and convenience to his home.  Gil learned from Winn-Dixie television ads that he could visit the Winn-Dixie website to access coupons and fill prescriptions.  However, he often found the website difficult to navigate with special software designed to assist vision-impaired individuals in using computers.  The Winn-Dixie website did not work well with the software 90% of the time.  As a result, Gil could not access coupons or order his prescriptions online.  Gil sued Winn-Dixie for violating the ADA by denying him goods and services based on his disability.

Winn-Dixie’s vice president of IT (Rodney Cornwell) testified that the company was building an ADA policy for its website but had not completed it.  Part of the challenge appeared to be getting third party vendors that interface with Winn-Dixie’s website (like Google and American Express) to ensure that their websites are accessible.  Cornwell admitted that it was feasible to modify the website for accessibility, and that the company had budgeted $250,000 to make the modifications.  An expert on website accessibility testified that his firm could make Winn-Dixie’s site accessible for $37,000.

The Court’s Decision

After a bench trial, the court determined that Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the ADA because its website was inaccessible, and included a draft injunction in its order that would require the company to make the website accessible and post an accessibility policy on the site.  The court did not consider the $250,000 cost to make the website accessible too high, noting that Winn-Dixie spent $2 million to launch the website initially and another $7 million to adapt it for use in the Plenti rewards program.

The court adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as the standard Winn-Dixie must meet to make its website accessible.  WCAG 2.0 is a set of guidelines developed by a private group of accessibility experts.  Although the standard has been used in consent decrees and settlement agreements, and the Department of Justice has referenced the standard in the Title II rulemaking process, this marks the first time that it is formally adopted as the legal standard for public accommodation websites.

The court also held that Winn-Dixie is responsible for accessibility of its entire site, including parts of it operated by third party vendors.  The court reasoned that Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require third party vendors to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.

The injunction was entered on July 6, 2017.  Winn-Dixie is appealing the trial court’s decision.

Takeaways

The Winn-Dixie order is significant in several respects.

  • Plaintiffs in ADA website accessibility lawsuits now have legal precedent that websites are places of public accommodation and therefore must be accessible to individuals with disabilities. The decision, which is not binding, does not mean that all consumer facing websites are places of public accommodation.  The Ninth Circuit, of which Hawai‘i is a part, requires a “nexus” between a website and the physical place of public accommodation for an ADA violation to occur.
  • Although this case involved a public accommodation, it can have implications on website accessibility claims against employers.  Title I of the ADA applies to private employers with 15+ employees.  Covered employers may not discriminate against employees with disabilities and must make reasonable accommodations for them.  In addition, accessibility may be an issue for business websites that allow job applicants to apply online.
  • The court adopted WCAG 2.0 as the legal standard for accessibility. Still uncertain is what level of compliance is required, as WCAG 2.0 has multiple levels of conformance (A, AA, AAA).   Also unclear is whether substantial compliance with the standard is enough or 100% compliance—which may be impossible—is required.
  • Website owners should develop a website accessibility policy and link to it on their website.
  • One factor in determining the burden of the cost of compliance is its proportionality to the overall cost of developing the website, including past modifications.
  • Website owners are responsible for the accessibility of third party vendors that interface with their site. This requirement can be challenging to satisfy, especially if a website uses smaller third party vendors who might lack resources to ensure accessibility of their applications and websites.

Consult a lawyer with website accessibility experience to help you evaluate and mitigate the risk of ADA liability.

%d bloggers like this: