Go Ahead, Make My…Signage ADA Compliant

The title of course is somewhat of an homage to the great Clint Eastwood and a spin on one of his memorable trademark expressions from his Dirty Harry days.

So, why reference Clint Eastwood in a blog about the ADA? One of Mr. Eastwood’s many roles in life included that of a business owner fighting an ADA-related lawsuit back in 2000, alleging that his resort had discriminated against a wheelchair-bound individual. We’ll come back to this story in just a moment.

The ADA has been a very critical piece of civil rights legislation in its 21-year existence, ensuring that disabled individuals have equal opportunities for employment, transportation and access to and within public facilities.  In fact, the ADA has already undergone a major revision that took six years to finalize, going into full effect in March of this year.

Recently, I viewed a news story about the darker side of the ADA, in which sleazy attorneys file abusive lawsuits to get businesses to settle out of court as more of a money-making scheme, rather than as a just attempt to protect the rights of someone who is disabled. In many cases, attorneys offer to pay disabled individuals to simply enter an establishment and obtain a business card to prove that they were actually at the place of business. The attorney will then file a lawsuit alleging some type of access discrimination under the ADA, and more often than not, the business owner is forced to settle out of court rather than pay the cost to battle the suit in court. A business owner was interviewed and noted that his case would have cost him $100,000 in attorney’s fees to fight in court, as opposed to the $14,000 that was eventually settled on out of court. And get this…the alleged victim was never even seen in the store’s security videos on the day in question!

In Clint Eastwood’s case, the alleged incident took place at Eastwood’s Mission Ranch resort in Carmel, CA in 1996, in which a wheelchair-bound woman with muscular dystrophy and her husband came to the resort without a reservation, and were told that the only accessible guest room was in use. They decided to stay at the resort long enough to have dinner, and afterward, the woman allegedly was directed to an inaccessible restroom instead of the accessible restroom that was in closer proximity. The plaintiff wanted an out of court settlement of $576,000, which Eastwood decided to fight in court, believing that she was simply wanting money (and believed she was being influenced heavily by her attorney). The plaintiff had great difficulty in proving her case, as her story had many discrepancies with a lack of corroboration. It took the jury just four hours to rule in favor of Eastwood, with much doubt that the plaintiff even tried to use the facilities in the first place. It is important to note that jurors did find that Eastwood’s resort needed to make improvements that were consistent with ADA requirements, including providing a ramp to the registration office, a second disabled-access guest room and signs addressing access accommodations.

So, what’s the lesson to be learned here? It’s understood that not all businesses have the money and resources to fight abusive lawsuits, and that the ADA is sizeable legislation, presenting many opportunities for attorneys to ‘swoop-in’ and file law suits based on minor violations. However, that does not minimize the importance of the ADA and its intent in protecting the rights of disabled individuals.

Pro-activity is key for business owners in minimizing the chances of any type of accessibility lawsuit, and with respect to architectural signage, this includes dealing with a signage provider that has experience and detailed knowledge when applying current ADA accessibility guidelines to signage. Addressing ADA signage needs early in the design and planning process is more prudent and cost-effective than answering the question “Do you feel lucky…?”.

– Andy Levine
Director of Corporate Education

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