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Could Your Company’s Website Be Violating The ADA?

Published by and on August 17, 2017

A website that is inaccessible to disabled individuals could subject a business to liability under the ADA.

A website that is inaccessible to disabled individuals could subject a business to liability under the ADA.

A federal district court in Florida recently held that the website of the grocery store chain Winn Dixie violated the rights of the visually impaired plaintiff under the ADA. Following a bench trial, the court found that several features and services of the Winn-Dixie website did not properly work with the screen reading software Plaintiff used to navigate websites. As a result, Plaintiff could not access certain features of the website, such as the store locator, online refill prescription service, and coupon section. Additionally, the Winn-Dixie website did not indicate that the company was working on changes to increase the accessibility of its website.

The court recognized that there is no federal organization that has issued requirements for website accessibility. It did find, however, that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are produced by a group of private organizations to increase website accessibility, is the industry standard for accessibility.

Testimony was provided during the trial demonstrating that the accessibility of Winn-Dixie’s website could be corrected with simple code modifications and that the WCAG would address all of the issues found on the website. When analyzing the cost and feasibility of the website modification, the court made special note of the fact that Winn-Dixie had recently spent $7 million revamping its website but did not make efforts to increase accessibility to the visually impaired during these improvements. The court also noted that while the estimate of modification went up to $250,000, this number paled in comparison to the $7 million spent in 2016 on remaking the website (and $2 million spent in 2015 to launch the website). Additionally, Winn-Dixie admitted it was feasible to make modifications to increase accessibility.

The court went on to analyze whether Winn-Dixie’s website fell under the protection of the ADA. In doing so, it noted the split amongst courts as to whether places of public accommodations under the ADA are limited to physical spaces. Yet, the court also recognized that there are several cases where courts have found that a website that was heavily integrated with physical store locations and acted as a gateway to these physical locations was a service of a public accommodation.

While not reaching the issue of whether Winn-Dixie’s website itself was a public accommodation, the court did determine that Winn-Dixie’s fell under the protection of the ADA because it was a gateway to, and heavily integrated with, the chain’s physical store locations. Therefore, the website violated the ADA, and the court ordered Winn-Dixie to modify its website to increase its accessibility to disabled users.

Welter Insight

Companies may not typically think of their websites as a service or place of public accommodation where individuals are entitled to the protections of the ADA. Without guidance from the Department of Justice regarding website accessibility under the ADA, courts are left to fill in the blanks, causing uncertainty for businesses. Therefore, businesses, especially those with physical store locations, should conduct a self-analysis of their websites to determine if the website is one that that may be covered by the ADA and if so, whether the website is accessible to disabled individuals and whether modifications need to be made. Since this area of law is unsettled, businesses should continue to monitor how courts are ruling on website accessibility issues.

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