Website inaccessibility court cases on the rise

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Wednesday, 18 January 2017 12:12pm

In March 2016 ‘Colorado Bags n’ Baggage’ became the first retailer in the US to lose a litigation case because their website was inaccessible. Today, there are dozens of court cases that are either scheduled to be heard or that have already settled out of court, as a surge of legal cases bring web accessibility into the mainstream, with broader implications for Australia and around the world.

‘Sorry it’s the law’ within a red circle

'Sorry it's the law' within a red circle

The California State Court became the first in the US to rule that a retailer violated the country’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) due to a website not being accessible to individuals with vision-related disabilities.

The judge ruled that the plaintiff “presented sufficient evidence that he was denied full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, privileges, and accommodations offered by the defendant (via its website) because of his disability.”

The finding awarded damages and made the defendant pay costs, in a landmark case that has encouraged disability advocates, groups and people with a disability to launch legal cases after being treated unfairly or being excluded from websites providing transactional options and information-based interactions.

This was the first case in the US to go to trial and find for the plaintiff in a court of law. However, a landmark legal precedent on website inaccessibility occurred ten years earlier. In January 2006 the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) filed a lawsuit alleging that's website was not accessible.

A US Federal Judge ruled that the lawsuit could proceed past Target Corporation's motions to dismiss the case. Target settled the class action lawsuit in August 2008 and agreed to pay class damages of $6 million plus NFB’s attorney's fees and costs of $3.7 million. The settlement also featured 'monitored compliance’ by the NFB.

More recently, the influential D&O Diary, a periodic journal for Company Directors and Liability Officers, reported in October 2016 that from December 2015 to October 2016 there have been 106 lawsuits filed in the US alleging that individuals with disabilities are being denied access to a business’s goods and services due to its allegedly inaccessible website. More than half of these lawsuits have been filed against companies in the retail sector, with restaurants, banks and insurance companies also in the firing line.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in Australia is similar in purpose and structure to the ADA in the USA, and is designed to protect people with a disability from being discriminated against, from organisations and individuals – offline and online.

This Act makes it against the law for providers of goods, services and facilities to discriminate against a person because of his or her disability and upholds the right in law for a person with a disability to obtain goods and use services and facilities in the same way as people without a disability.

Aside from the litigation risk which is growing, another major ramification of not having an accessible website is the lost opportunity for sales and engagement by organisations as highlighted by recent research out of the UK into the negative impacts of inaccessible websites which Media Access Australia reported on in January 2017.

You can read a summary of the Disability Discrimination Act in regards to what it covers and what it upholds, from the Australian Government’s Human Rights website.


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