The increasing popularity of online shopping is placing e-commerce businesses—specifically those in the alcohol beverage industry—in legal crosshairs. In lockstep with a recent uptick in website accessibility cases, plaintiff firms are sending pre-suit demand letters to alcohol suppliers and, in some cases, even filing a state or federal court lawsuit. These lawsuits—which are typically filed in California or New York—involve claims that a supplier’s website is not accessible to individuals who are blind in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related state laws. In these cases, plaintiffs seek attorneys’ fees, damages (only under state law) and injunctive relief that would require the website to conform with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards, which have been broadly adopted by courts and regulators.
To prevail on a website accessibility claim, plaintiffs must first show that a defendant is a private entity that owns, leases or operates a “place of public accommodation.” Courts, however, are split on what it means for a website to be considered a place of public accommodation under Title III of the ADA. While some jurisdictions require that there be a “physical nexus” between the website and a brick-and-mortar store, other jurisdictions have permitted these cases to go forward against a website-only company that does not own or operate any physical retail location.
In addition to establishing that the supplier’s website is a place of public accommodation, the plaintiff must satisfy certain jurisdictional requirements which will depend upon whether products can be purchased directly from the website as well as whether the supplier ships to the state in which the suit was filed. Leveraging these defenses (among others) will be critical when it comes to either convincing the plaintiff to withdraw the claim, filing a motion to dismiss or achieving an early resolution on favorable terms.
Due to the rise in these website accessibility lawsuits, industry members are encouraged to take a proactive approach:
- Train personnel on accessibility requirements and WCAG standards.
- Test the website against WCAG standards (through independent consultants or user testing).
- Retain testing documentation to demonstrate that users with disabilities can fully use the website.
- Assess potential areas of non-conformance with WCAG standards.
- Work with internal/external technical teams to implement accessibility features into the website.
- Develop an accessibility policy that informs users about the company’s accessibility practices.
- Consider including a link to the website accessibility policy on every webpage, including a reporting option that is appropriately routed to address accessibility issues.
- Regularly audit the website to assess its level of accessibility (particularly after website updates).
- Engage legal counsel to minimize litigation risk associated with website accessibility issues, including whether the ADA is applicable to the company’s website in light of the current state of the law.