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Accessibility.Blog

2018’s Flood of Accessibility Lawsuits

July 12, 2018 12:38:48 PM EDT

2018 has already seen around 1000 lawsuits filed that are related to website accessibility. Industries that are being sued vary widely and include:

  • clothing and apparel stores
  • telecommunications companies
  • restaurants
  • consumer goods
  • e-commerce stores

So far, 2018 has seen a continued increase in the number of lawsuits filed against U.S. organizations for failing to comply with accessibility requirements. Specifically, the lawsuits are based on discriminatory inaccessibility of websites to people with a visual or hearing disability. Many blame the lawsuit increase on the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which has failed to provide clear guidance on the compliance requirements businesses must follow.

Why is this occurring?

In the United States, the DOJ is responsible for ensuring that businesses and organizations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a set of laws designed to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. Such areas include places of work, education, health, and public transport. The DOJ has previously made it clear that the ADA also extends to people’s right to fully access and use the internet and online services.

The problem is that there has been an ongoing delay in the release of federal accessibility guidelines. Companies have been expected to comply with existing technical standards such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 until the federal accessibility guidelines are released. With this lack of a federal directive by the DOJ, law firms are actively pursuing suits, resulting in a large spike in the number of web accessibility cases being filed.

There were at least 814 federal web accessibility lawsuits filed in 2017, but an assessment of the issue by ClassAction.org shows the number of lawsuits being filed in 2018 may far surpass that number. The assessment reveals that as of February 2018, more than three web accessibility lawsuits were filed — per day. And those represent only the cases filed in federal courts. The ClassAction.org assessment includes the details of several hundred of the most recent cases filed.

The lawsuits

The majority of the lawsuits are in relation to websites being inaccessible for people with vision impairment or blindness. There are also a small number of lawsuits alleging breaches of the ADA in relation to people with hearing difficulties.

The defendants include companies across the whole spectrum of industries, including clothing and apparel stores, telecommunications companies, restaurants, consumer goods, and e-commerce stores. What is somewhat surprising is that many of the companies involved are high profile and would not be expected to be slow movers in terms of addressing website accessibility issues. Some of the more high profile defendants include Nike, Converse, Faberge, Timex, Hershey’s, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Rolex, and Amazon.

Let’s look at a couple of these cases in more detail from two of America’s largest and most well-known companies, Nike and Amazon. Both companies faced lawsuit filings resulting from the alleged inaccessibility of their websites in relation to the provision of e-commerce services.

Maria Mendizabal vs. Nike

The plaintiff, Maria Mendizabel, is legally blind and brought forward a class action case against Nike on behalf of herself and consumers in similar situation. The plaintiff initiated the case due to Nike’s apparent failure to “design, construct, maintain, and operate its website to be fully accessible to and independently usable by the plaintiff and other blind or visually-impaired people.” This denial of full and equal access to its website and corresponding denial of its products and services is seen as a violation of the plaintiff’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Bishop vs. Amazon.com

Cedric Bishop has similarly filed a class action case against Amazon.com. Mr Bishop is a visually-impaired and legally blind person who requires screen-reading software to read website content using his computer. He is asserting that Amazon’s website is not equally accessible to blind and visually-impaired consumers and therefore violates the ADA. He is seeking a permanent injunction to cause a change in Amazon’s “corporate policies, practices, and procedures so that its website will become and remain accessible to blind and visually impaired

consumers”.

What does the future hold?

Census data reveals that there are more than 8 million legally blind people in the US, including more than 2 million people who are completely blind. This demonstrates that the two cases summarized above and the hundreds of others filed in 2018 for similar reasons represent the difficulties faced by more than just a small number of individuals.

The numbers also highlight the need for the DOJ to act quickly in establishing the federal accessibility standards it indicated it would release in 2018. Doing so will bring stability and increased certainty in the organizational understanding of accessibility needs, leading to improved levels of accessibility nationwide.

For more information on web accessibility, please visit the Bureau of Internet Accessibility website or use our scanning tool, which can help to instantly identify any accessibility issues that your website may have.

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