18 Apr 2007 ADA Lawsuits Cost Businesses $309.1 Million to Win
To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the owner of a historic California candy store is forced to build a $14,000 handicapped-accessible entrance ramp.
Candy Store Owner Takes a Licking
Lanny Rose has owned the Cottage of Sweets, a candy store in Carmel, California, for more than 24 years. He says he values every customer who visits his store, noting, “My specialty store is small enough that I make it a point to take care of each of my customers.”
Constructed in 1922, the building measures just 325 square feet and is designated as historic. Due to its historical classification, Rose has always been extremely careful not to remodel or alter any structural aspect of the building without the appropriate approvals.
In March of 2003, Rose received a demand that physical changes to his building were necessary. He was being sued over his business’ failure to comply with Title III provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Enacted by the federal government in 1990, the ADA – and specifically Title III – prohibits discrimination against the disabled, and requires public places and commercial facilities to meet various “accessibility standards.” For Rose, the step leading into his store was the cause of the complaint.
To Rose’s surprise, he and several other local business owners were being sued by Joseph Tacl, a 52-year-old handicapped man who had visited Carmel in 2002. Along with the Cottage of Sweets, Tacl – who became disabled in a car accident in 1993 – sued seven other downtown Carmel shops, claiming “numerous architectural barriers” prevented him from “fully and safely” visiting them. Gene Zweben, Tacl’s attorney, called Carmel one of California’s “least accessible towns.” Zweben said the defendants in the cases were “businesses that my client had attempted to go to but was discriminated against because he wasn’t able to go inside the way everybody else can.”
Rose does not recall Tacl’s visit, but says he and his employees have always tried to cater to the needs of handicapped customers seeking to patronize the store. He said, “We have our own store policy where we will go outside to assist our handicapped patrons into the store. We try to be helpful and give all the assistance that we can.”
Those efforts apparently were unknown or not enough for Tacl. In his complaint to the U.S. District Court for Northern California in San Jose, Tacl claimed he received “unlawful discrimination and unfair treatment.” As part of the settlement eventually reached by the parties, Rose was forced to undertake a $14,000 construction project to transform the store’s circular step into a slightly ramped walkway that complies with ADA’s Title III provisions. Rose’s insurance company, The Hartford, also paid Tacl monetary damages. Neither side will disclose the exact amount paid in damages.
It turns out Tacl is no novice when it comes to filing ADA complaints. As of April of 2003, Tacl had filed nearly 100 lawsuits against businesses in Northern California. This identifies the potential for abuse of the law. “The ADA is supposed to provide protection for the disabled, not provide an incentive or an excuse for people to sue a small business owner,” says Representative Sam Graves (R-MO). “Every time this law is abused and a frivolous lawsuit is filed, small businesses and their employees are left to pay the bill.” Representative Graves’ office says that during the ADA’s first eight years, businesses prevailed in 92 percent of ADA cases, for a total cost to them of $309.1 million, or approximately $25,000 per lawsuit.
Sources: Statement of Representative Sam Graves (R-MO) (April 28, 2003), Carmel Pine Cone (April 4-10, 2003; July 23, 2004), The Cottage of Sweets, Gene Zweben, Lanny Rose, MonterreyHerald.com (April 4, 2003), U.S. Department of Justice
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