Clicking Towards Disaster: The Cost of ADA Non-Compliant Websites

Lauren L. Wood

By Lauren L. Wood

website accessibilityIn today’s world, businesses increasingly rely on the internet, making websites invaluable tools for reaching and expanding a customer base. If you have an interactive website on which you conduct transactions with consumers, it must be accessible by anyone, including those with a hearing or vision impairment. A website that doesn’t adequately support the user experience (“UX”) for those with such impairments creates obstacles to its use and creates potential liability.

Unfortunately, the first notice a company receives about website accessibility issues may come via a lawsuit. Often filed in Federal Courts of states other than the company’s home state (New York and California being the most common), complaints alleging a company’s website is inaccessible or unusable by someone with a particular disability are proliferating. Discrimination in public accommodations is prohibited under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Federal Courts are split on whether stand-alone websites (i.e., where the owner of the website does not operate a store, restaurant, hotel, or other physical location) are places of public accommodation to which Title III’s accessibility standards apply.

Most companies would appreciate being notified of website deficiencies preventing a user from utilizing their site and be given the opportunity to correct any accessibility issues. Once a lawsuit is filed, it may be too late to prevent lengthy, expensive litigation over the issue, short of settling. Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief plus attorney’s fees, which may skyrocket if the case is not settled expeditiously. They often also seek compensatory damage awards with state anti-discrimination claims. While these lawsuits are multiplying, the law in this area is still developing , leading to difficulties obtaining a swift resolution as the interpretation of the law evolves, and often splits, among circuits.

Most of these lawsuits are filed by a handful of plaintiffs represented by a handful of law firms alleging that a website does not comply with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). While the exact criteria required to avoid running afoul of the ADA has not been determined, the WCAG addresses accessibility issues such as contrast for those with difficulties differentiating colors, subtitles, or compatibility with screen reader software for those with vision impairment.

So, what should you do?

Consult with your webmaster about updates needed for compliance, even if your website was designed in the past few years. Many resources and businesses specializing in web development are available that can update your site with WCAG best practices, responsive design, better e-commerce tools, and more. Proactively ensuring your company’s website complies with current standards helps prevent UX frustration due to accessibility issues, increasing your ability to reach and serve your intended customers.

Next, develop a plan. Devote resources to regular audits and updates to your company’s website UX. Use a trusted web development or IT company for ongoing compliance and an accessible UX for your customers. Being accessible to consumers with a disability is also a good business strategy, as more consumers will be able to use your site to make purchases, reservations, etc.

It may be impossible to anticipate every claim that may come your company’s way but implementing these strategies will help mitigate potential lawsuits while simultaneously driving your business forward.

Posted by Attorney Lauren L. Wood. Wood is a member of Danna McKitrick’s litigation team. She primarily focuses on civil litigation and insurance-related litigation for her clients. She is an experienced litigator in personal injury defense, trial practice, appellate work, and legal research.

Published in the June 2022 St. Louis Small Business Monthly.

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