A disabled California man who has already sued 200 wineries over potential violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act is now trying to strike a deal with the California wine industry.
George Louie, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Americans With Disabilities Advocates, says his organization is prepared to sue another 235 wineries if they fail to take his offer seriously.
Louie, a diabetic who lost a leg in 1996, met last week with the public policy committee of the Wine Institute, a San Francisco—based trade organization that represents about 600 California wineries.
At the meeting, Louie laid out a plan in which each winery would pay his organization a $250 fee to postpone any potential lawsuits. A winery would then have six months to hire a consultant on compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, a federal law that, among other things, sets requirements for commercial facilities in providing handicapped access. If any problems were found, the winery would have one year to fix them.
"This is a golden opportunity for all those people who claim we've been too harsh," said Louie, who believes that lack of accessibility is a major problem at California wineries.
His prior lawsuits list a number of violations at wineries' visitor facilities, from improperly marked handicapped parking to inaccessible restrooms.
Although even Louie's critics concede that the $250 fee is insignificant (wineries sued by Louie's group have paid, on average, $5,000 to $10,000 to settle the cases), they say the deal seems vaguely like blackmail. Fearing lawsuits by Louie, however, no vintner would comment on record about the plan.
Wine Institute counsel Wendell Lee helped work out the details of the proposal with Louie, but said the institute is not officially taking a position on it.
"Each winery is going to have to make its own decision," said Wine Institute chairman Dennis Groth, president of Groth Vineyards in Napa Valley. "And we're not urging them to do it or urging them not to."
The $250 fee, Louie explained, would cover administrative costs and expenses for site inspection once the winery claims it is in compliance. He admitted that paying for a consultant and any physical changes to the winery would be a far greater expense.
"The $250 basically buys you a minimum of 18 months in which you won't be sued while coming into compliance," said Louie. It, however, does not stop another organization or other people with disabilities from suing.
The wine industry is not the only target of Louie's organization, which has filed hundreds of lawsuits in the past few years against such businesses as Sears and McDonald's. The list of wineries that Louie's group has sued includes Beringer Blass, Silver Oak, Foppiano, Navarro and Bogle.
While Groth conceded that there are wineries that need to work harder to meet ADA standards, he commented that it isn't always easy. "For example, there are 95 specific things you need to have for a public-access bathroom to be in compliance," Groth said. "This is a complex area of the law."
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