Florida is famous for many things- white, sandy beaches, theme parks, space exploration, citrus fruit, and… lawsuits? The sunshine state is second in the country for web accessibility lawsuits, averaging more than one per day in 2018 for a total of 576. And that only includes the number of federal ADA lawsuits, not state or local offenses.
All federal and state government branches are required to comply with Section 508 when developing, competitively procuring, maintaining, or using electronic information or information technology. Besides being legally compliant with Section 508, state websites must be actually usable to those with disabilities to avoid facing civil action. That means that aside from “checking the boxes” to comply with Section 508, websites should also be tested by someone actually using a screenreader to ensure that the website behaves as expected no matter how it is accessed.
Legal ramifications for inaccessibility are not limited to government entities. Many websites have been ruled to be “places of public accommodation” since everyone can visit. As such, they fall under the jurisdiction of the ADA, which states that all places of public accommodation must be accessible to all visitors, without discrimination on the basis of handicap. Any website that does not accommodate all users could face a discrimination lawsuit under the ADA.
So what industries should be concerned about potential litigation? If 2018 was any indication, all of them. A number of city and county governments faced lawsuits, as well as colleges and educational institutions, tourist destinations like hotels and restaurants, physical retailers with a related website such as Winn-Dixie Grocery Stores, and even the Miami Heat basketball team’s online store.
One particularly notable lawsuit was against Winn-Dixie grocery stores in 2017. Plaintiff Juan Carlos Gil, who is blind and has ALS, was unable to refill his prescriptions online or download coupons from the store’s website. The website had not been formatted to interact with assistive technology, in this case, Gil’s screen reader. Many tabs did not function properly, there was no search function for him to quickly skip to the information he needed, and the “store locator” function was completely inaccessible. This case is important because it was one of the first to decide that a store’s website is considered a service offered by the store, especially when benefits offered on the website connect directly to the in-store shopping experience- like refilling prescriptions, obtaining coupons, and locating stores. Since services offered by a store must all be accessible in a place of public accommodation, the website must be as well.
Another landmark case in Florida is Haynes vs Hooters of America restaurants. Dennis Haynes is a blind Florida resident who filed a lawsuit against Hooters because his screen reader was unable to access information on the restaurant’s website. The first time this case went to trial it was dismissed because a year earlier Hooters had been sued by another blind plaintiff for similar accessibility issues and was in the process of making its website compliant in response. However, the case was appealed because Hayes requested different settlement terms than those which were being carried out from the prior case. Courts finally decided that Hayes did indeed have a case against Hooters, even though the restaurant chain was already in the process of remediating its website. Instead of waiting until a lawsuit (or two) has been filed to make a website compliant, websites should be made accessible from their inception to avoid litigation.
Florida local government agencies are also targets for lawsuits, since many reports and documents they offer are in an inaccessible PDF format. These documents, such as city council meeting minutes, policy manuals, and financial reports, are often uploaded as untagged PDFs, which don’t register as text for screen readers and other assistive technology. This prevents those who use assistive technology from accessing local government documents. Several counties in Florida have experienced lawsuits with settlement amounts ranging from $10,000-$20,000 due to inaccessible PDFs, including Flagler County, Palm Beach County, and Martin County. For county governments who survive on tax dollars, these amounts can be financially damaging. The solution to avoiding such lawsuits is remediating inaccessible PDFs into either tagged PDFs or HTML formats using a PDF conversion service or remediation software.
In the past few years, digital accessibility has increased exponentially in Florida. Many of these lawsuits have set legal precedence. They have shown companies it’s not enough to only make a website accessible once a lawsuit has been filed, it must be created that way from the beginning not only to prevent lawsuits but also to reach a broader audience and potential client base. Since 26% of adults in the US have a disability, and over 540,000 people in Florida have a visual disability, making your digital resources accessible can include a large portion of the market with whom you might not otherwise connect. Broadening your reach is great for business, prevents you from unintentionally excluding anyone, and helps prevent lawsuits.