Access Denied: Trial on Website Accessibility Claims Results in Decision for Disabled Individual

Web accessibility online internet website computer for people with disabilities symbol blue keyboard Access Denied: Trial on Website Accessibility Claims Results in Decision for Disabled Individual

On Tuesday, a federal district court in Florida issued an order in the first known trial involving accessibility to a public accommodation’s website.  Ultimately, the court found that grocery giant Winn-Dixie violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) because its website was inaccessible to a visually impaired customer.  As we have written about previously here and here, currently there are no binding regulations that specify the accessibility standards for websites under Title III of the ADA.

The court reached the verdict after conducting a two-day bench trial.  The plaintiff, a visually impaired man with cerebral palsy, wanted to use Winn-Dixie’s website to fill his prescriptions and find coupons.  Although the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to decide whether a website is a public accommodation for the purposes of the ADA, the trial court followed precedent from other jurisdictions to conclude that “Winn-Dixie’s website is heavily integrated with, and in many ways operates as a gateway to, Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations.”  For instance, the website’s store locator feature and prescription ordering service for in-store pick up provides a connection between Winn-Dixie’s website and its physical locations, thereby making it subject to the ADA.

The plaintiff testified that nearly 90% of the tabs on Winn-Dixie’s website did not work with his screen reader software.  The website was also not fully keyboard navigable.  For that reason, Winn-Dixie violated the ADA because “the inaccessibility of its website . . . denied [plaintiff] the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations that Winn-Dixie offers to its sighted customers.”  The plaintiff’s website accessibility expert then opined that most of these accessibility issues could be corrected with modifications to the website’s source code and the court found that the costs would not be extraordinary.  As a result, the court also found that it would not be unduly burdensome for Winn-Dixie to modify its website to comply with the ADA.

The court issued an injunction requiring Winn-Dixie to ensure that the website conforms to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 criteria.  WCAG 2.0 is a set of standards published by a private group of accessibility experts providing ways to make web content accessible for people with disabilities.  Although the guidelines have not been adopted as a legal standard, they have been incorporated into many consent decrees and settlement agreements, such as the DOJ’s settlement agreements Peapod, LLC and with edX, Inc.  Interestingly, the court did not specify in its order whether the website needs to conform to the A, AA, or AAA standards.  The Court also ordered Winn-Dixie to provide mandatory web accessibility training to all employees who develop programs for the site, and conduct periodic accessibility tests to ensure compliance with the ADA.  The injunction will expire in three years given “Defendant’s sincere and serious intent to make its website accessible to all.”  The court will also award reasonable attorney’s fees to the plaintiff.

This case illustrates that private website accessibility claims can be viable in at least some jurisdictions even before the Department of Justice issues updated regulations clearly defining the scope of the ADA’s coverage of websites.