01 Sep 2000 The Good, the Bad and the Greedy, by John K. Carlisle
Perhaps nothing better symbolizes what is wrong with America today than the current spectacle of Clint Eastwood, the screen icon of rugged American individualism, reduced to fighting a trial lawyer demanding half-a-million dollars for trivial violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
In congressional testimony earlier this year, Eastwood fumed about how much a three-year-old lawsuit alleging violations of ADA regulations is costing him. The target is his 32-room Mission Ranch hotel in Carmel, California. The lawsuit charges, among other things, that a bathroom is wheelchair inaccessible and a parking lot is out of compliance with federal law. Eastwood made efforts to address these violations, and asked for three months to fix the bathroom.
But that is not really the issue.
Eastwood complains that the real motivation for the litigation isn’t a legitimate concern for the disabled but is really lawyers looking to make a fast buck.
Although the disabled complainants do not collect monetary damages under the ADA, the lawyers who bring the lawsuits do get money. And that is what has the famed actor seeing red. He faces the possibility of having to pay the lawyer $577,000 in fees while the disabled get nothing. Says Eastwood, the lawyers get to drive off “in a big Mercedes and the disabled end up riding off in a wheelchair.”1
Eastwood’s run-in with the ADA is typical of how yet another well-meaning law has been perverted by regulatory stupidity and lawyers’ greed. Passed in 1990, the ADA was supposed to make life easier for the disabled by requiring businesses and governments to make accommodations for the disabled. Admirable though this may sound, the reality is starkly different. The ADA has created yet another layer of regulations that impose unnecessary costs on businesses, spawning more unnecessary litigation and creating another cash bonanza for opportunistic trial lawyers.
Indeed, the ADA imposes so many illogical and costly burdens that it is increasingly difficult for many small businesses to prosper. The experience of Clint Eastwood is hardly unique.
A case in point is the story of Debbie Shaffer, a Walla Walla, Washington, businesswoman. After operating an interior decorating business from her home for eight years, Shaffer decided in 1995 that it was time to find a choice downtown location. She located a 1,500 square-foot space consisting of a main floor for retail sales and a raised mezzanine that could serve as both an office and design studio.
But when contractors informed Shaffer of the extensive renovations she would have to make to meet ADA regulations, she realized that her expansion plans would prove to be exorbitantly expensive. The problem was with the mezzanine, which was not handicapped-accessible. Shaffer says that would not have posed any problem because all she had to do was simply come downstairs to show disabled prospective clients her decorating samples.
But, according to ADA regulations, this would constitute special treatment that unfairly discriminates against the handicapped. To bring her prospective office up to code, Shaffer would have had to spend an additional $150,000 to install an elevator, widen the building entrances and doorways and build handicapped bathrooms. Shaffer had no choice but to abandon her expansion plans, costing her an estimated 50% increase in business.
Says Shaffer, “I have a great amount of support for people with any kind of disability, having grown up with a deaf sister. But the government takes it too far.”2
In 1993, Karla and Richard Hauk of Wall, South Dakota, thought they were doing the right thing when they voluntarily converted two of their rooms at their newly-opened Days Inn motel into handicapped-accessible rooms. But instead of praising the Hauks for their efforts to help the disabled, the U.S. Justice Department claimed the couple should be sued because they didn’t make their rooms handicapped-accessible enough. The government ordered the Hauks to spend even more money widening the bathroom doors in the non-handicapped rooms, arguing that “if someone uses a wheelchair [to visit] another guest in a non-accessible guest room, he or she will not be able even to enter the bathroom in that room.”
Nearly driven out of business by the government’s lawsuit, the Hauks settled with the government by agreeing to make $30-50,000 worth of changes to driveways and sidewalks.3
This is not what the Americans With Disabilities Act should be about. America should be the land of opportunity where individuals work hard to be successful and self-reliant. But thanks to flawed laws like the ADA, it is becoming a nation where enterprising individuals, epitomized by Clint Eastwood, are made the targets of opportunistic trial lawyers looking to make an undeserving dollar.
John K. Carlisle is director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force.
1 “Eastwood: Make My ADA,” San Francisco Examiner, May 22, 2000.
2 The 2000 National Directory of Environmental and Regulatory Victims, The National Center For Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C., 2000, downloadable at http://www.nationalcenter.org/VictimDirectory00.html.