Thirteen wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, including Louis M. Martini and Kendall-Jackson, are being sued in federal court by a disabled California man who says the wineries' visitor facilities don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This is the second round of lawsuits against northern California wineries filed by George Louie, who sued nine wineries in December 2001 and warned that more challenges would follow.
"If you saw how many complaints I get [from the disabled], you'd be amazed. I've had 17 complaints already this week against wineries," said Louie, founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Americans with Disabilities Advocates. Louie, a diabetic who lost a leg in 1996, relies mainly on a wheelchair to get around.
The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that, among other things, sets requirements for commercial facilities in providing handicapped access. Louie's lawsuits list a number of violations, from improperly marked handicap parking to inaccessible restrooms.
Other wineries named in the latest round of lawsuits are Beaucanon, Belvedere, Chimney Rock, Darioush, Foppiano, Grgich Hills, Mill Creek, Regusci, Signorello, Steltzner and Trefethen.
Louie said he has already settled the suits filed in December against nine Napa wineries, including Beringer Wine Estates, Charles Krug, Rutherford Hill, Silver Oak and ZD Wines.
San Francisco attorney Rob Carrol is representing many of the wineries involved in the cases. "I don't think George Louie is a bad guy. I don't have to live in his shoes," Carrol said. "He is not doing anything unlawful under the statute, but as far as I'm concerned, especially when it comes to small businesses, his method is as unethical as the day is long."
Carrol and Louie agree on one thing: Most of the wineries thought they were in compliance with the law. But Carrol believes it would be more constructive to first notify the wineries of a problem before resorting to a lawsuit.
Louie dismisses that argument. "Does the California Highway Patrol give advance warning to a drunk driver that they're about to be arrested?" he asks. "No, they're not going to come into compliance until they get something on paper."
Louie's organization has filed more than 350 lawsuits in the past few years against such businesses as Sears and McDonald's. The main goal, Louie said, is to make the businesses more accessible to people with disabilities, but financial settlements -- ranging from thousands of dollars to $155 -- are usually involved as well.
Even Carrol admits the settlements are not large. The $155 agreement, which covered the cost of filing the lawsuit, was made recently with a Napa winery that Louie says cooperated fully in fixing its problems.
"We try not to sue the real small wineries, the mom-and-pop wineries," Louie said. "I'm not getting rich. This organization is barely making it. We make very little money. Lawyers -- even civil-rights lawyers -- expect to be paid. We keep filing more lawsuits as the money comes in."
This may not be the end of his lawsuits against California wineries, Louie warned. His organization is investigating complaints in Sonoma, Santa Barbara and other wine regions.