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California’s No-Proof-Needed Disability Law

June 19 2009 | by


The motto of Del Taco’s restaurant is “Go Bold or Go Home.” Kenneth Munson chose the first option. He sued the taco chain in 2005 after he was unable to get his wheelchair into their “narrow” restroom entrance. As a result, he had to go across the street to another business to use the facilities.

Earlier this week, the California State Supreme Court sided with Munson. The unanimous ruling now makes it possible for California businesses to be sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act without proving the business did so “intentionally.”

This is a mucho grande ruling. Federal law doesn’t let individuals sue — nor collect damage relief — for disability discrimination. A government agency must intervene on their behalf. But California lets individuals do both. And with this new no-proof-required ruling, Californians with disabilities now have an even stronger hand to play.

Could this decision hurt small businesses in California? Yes and no. It forces businesses to make sure they’re up to building code, and pressures them to retrofit existing buildings to remove access barriers for people with disabilities. The ADA’s guidelines – not set in stone — call for making any improvements that are “readily achievable.”

Still, these guidelines are looked at on a case-by-case basis. It looks at a company’s size and resources as well as the cost of the access improvements. In the case of Del Taco -– any fry cook could have pointed out that an accessible bathroom entrance should be a priority fix. And the chain paid $66,000 to make the necessary improvements. It probably also spurred them to look at barriers in their other locations throughout the U.S., which isn’t a bad thing. (Del Taco ain’t so macho anymore. )

The good news for California businesses is that, the amount of damage relief is low for violating the law– ranging from $1,000 to $12,000. That’s not a deal breaker for most businesses, and probably isn’t enough to spur frivolous lawsuits on its own. But it does give incentive to many people with disabilities to have their point proven in court. Equal access isn’t a mirage. If a person can’t get up a ramp or into a bathroom, then it’s not a “place of business.” That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

  • Darrell Shandrow

    Unfortunately, once again, we’re talking about only architectural barriers for people with physical disabilities. Of course, I’m all for this access, but we also need to be thinking about info tech access for the blind, the deaf, etc. It is sad that there’s been very little testing of ADA and other laws when it comes to info access, and most disability groups just don’t seem to want to bother with us, either. :-(

  • Dee

    I absolutely agree with making a business accommodate their establishment for the disabled body and should be acted upon.

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