According to Accessibility.com’s annual recap of U.S. web accessibility lawsuits, 2,387 cases were filed in 2022 — and 1,660 of those cases were filed in New York state.
In other words, the Empire State is home to about 70% of digital accessibility lawsuits filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That prompts an obvious question: Why?
For starters, more than 66% of all 2022 web accessibility cases were filed by five law firms. Three of those firms are based in New York.
But that’s not the only reason for the discrepancy. New York plaintiffs often add state-level and municipal-level claims to their ADA lawsuits, which can make the cases profitable. Some New York laws allow plaintiffs to recover damages if they can prove discrimination (the ADA, which is a federal law, does not allow plaintiffs to recover damages).
Many ADA lawsuit defendants aren’t based in New York
Another important note: While the majority of web accessibility cases are filed in New York, many defendants aren’t based in the state. The plaintiff files the lawsuit in their home state — the location of the defendant’s brick-and-mortar location is mostly irrelevant.
That’s also the case in the second-most litigious state. California’s Unruh Act allows plaintiffs to sue defendants in any state for damages, and 649 web accessibility lawsuits were filed in the Golden State in 2023. A recent ruling suggests that the Unruh Act cannot apply to online-only businesses, but that ruling is expected to face a challenge in California’s Supreme Court.
Even when a business mounts a successful defense to an ADA lawsuit, defendants usually cannot recover legal fees from plaintiffs. Given that the number of accessibility lawsuits continues to increase each year, every organization needs to take web accessibility seriously — regardless of where they’re headquartered.
Plaintiffs must be able to demonstrate harm
While it’s tempting to assume that New York law firms are filling hundreds of frivolous cases each year, that’s not the case.
In Harty v. West Point Realty, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit established that plaintiffs must demonstrate a “concrete" and “particularized" harm. That precedent means that simply encountering an accessibility barrier isn’t enough for a lawsuit — the plaintiff must show that the barrier prevented them from completing a purchase or using the company’s services.
The sheer number of ADA lawsuits would indicate that law firms are having no issue making that case. That’s not surprising: Most websites have serious accessibility issues, and until organizations treat accessibility as a priority, plaintiffs won’t need to do much work to find offenders.
Reduce your business’s legal risks by embracing web accessibility
Title III of the ADA applies to all places of public accommodation, and according to the Department of Justice (DOJ), websites qualify as places of public accommodation.
Fortunately, businesses can take a proactive approach to limit their legal risks — and provide better experiences for their customers. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is widely considered the international standard for digital accessibility.
Websites that meet WCAG’s Level A and Level AA success criteria are considered accessible for most users, and while the ADA doesn’t contain technical requirements, the DOJ has referenced WCAG as a reasonable standard.
If you’re building a digital compliance strategy, keep these tips in mind:
- Set a conformance goal. Most websites should aim for WCAG Level AA conformance; read about the differences between WCAG levels.
- Test your content. Automated audits can identify many WCAG failures, while manual testing is necessary for criteria that require human judgment.
- Publish an accessibility statement. Your accessibility statement should outline your goals and identify any known barriers on your website.
- Communicate the importance of accessible design to your team. Consider digital accessibility training for web designers, developers, content writers, and other members of your team.
At the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, we’re dedicated to helping businesses adopt the best practices of inclusive design. Talk to us to learn more or get started with a confidential automated analysis, which tests your content against WCAG Level A/AA checkpoints.