Even "Successful" Web Accessibility Lawsuit Defenses Carry a Cost

November 18, 2022

You’ve received a web accessibility demand letter that cites alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After discussing the letter with your legal counsel, you decide to fight. What happens next? 

If you operate a truly accessible website — generally, that means that you follow all of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Level AA success criteria — you may never encounter this situation. However, if your website contains accessibility barriers, you’ll face an uphill battle. 

Most web accessibility cases end in settlements

The vast majority of ADA web accessibility demand letters are resolved before they become lawsuits. That includes many high-profile cases, and while the terms of settlements are usually confidential, most organizations decide to avoid litigation for practical reasons: Lawyers are expensive, and a long discrimination lawsuit can have an enormous impact on a well-known brand.

When cases end up in court, the costs of litigation can quickly outweigh the costs of a settlement. Even when defendants win, they may still face enormous expenses. 

Related: U.S. Businesses Potentially Spent Billions on Legal Fees for Inaccessible Websites in 2020

Can web accessibility defendants recover legal fees from plaintiffs?

The ADA does allow “prevailing parties" to recover legal fees, but plaintiffs are only liable for those fees if their allegations are found to be “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” 

Since most websites do contain serious accessibility issues, defendants may have trouble proving that allegations fall into one of those narrow categories.

A recent lawsuit illustrates that point. In 2021, Trinitas Cellars, a California winery, successfully argued that alleged web accessibility issues did not deny customers “full and fair enjoyment" of the business’s services. However, the court denied a motion that would have forced the plaintiff to pay for the defendant’s legal expenses.

United States District Judge William H. Orrick explained the court’s rationale when denying the motion.

“This case does not fall within the narrow and extraordinary category of cases that are entirely frivolous, vexatious, unreasonable, or unfounded,” Orrick wrote. “To be sure, Gomez ultimately lost and the issues that made it to summary judgment were, on his side, weak. But that alone is insufficient to award fees.”

Related: Does Website Accessibility Require 100% Compliance?

How much do legal fees cost for a web accessibility lawsuit?

According to one estimate, settling a web accessibility lawsuit for a small business can cost $5,000, which doesn’t include the costs of accessibility remediation or the plaintiff’s legal fees.

Legal expenses, of course, vary significantly depending on the extent of the alleged accessibility barriers, the size of the business, and other factors. If a case isn’t resolved quickly, the costs stack up — and high-profile cases tend to go through multiple appeals.

The infamous Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, LLC lawsuit, for example, began in 2016. The parties reached a settlement in June 2022 after six years of litigation. While we don’t know the terms of that settlement, it’s likely that the pizza chain paid a heavy price for their alleged accessibility barriers. 

Even if Domino’s had won the suit, fixing their mobile app and website would have likely been cheaper — and by doing so, the brand could have reached a much wider audience.

Related: Waiting for an ADA Demand Letter to Take Accessibility Seriously?

For organizations of all sizes, an accessible website is a valuable asset

WCAG is widely considered to be the international standard for digital accessibility. By following the guidelines, brands can reduce their legal exposure and improve compliance with the ADA and other laws.

However, digital accessibility isn’t just a legal obligation: It’s a powerful tool for growing your business’s reach. About 1 in 4 American adults live with disabilities, and that proportion is expected to increase over the next several decades.

Businesses that ignore those consumers put themselves at a disadvantage. And since the best practices of accessibility can also improve search engine optimization (SEO), reduce the costs of web development, and provide other tangible benefits, digital accessibility is a strong investment.

If you’ve received an ADA demand letter — or you’re looking for a long-term strategy that builds your customer base while reducing your legal risks — we’re here to help. Send us a message to connect with an expert or get started with a free, confidential web accessibility analysis.

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