More than a dozen New York state wineries on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley are facing federal lawsuits, with plaintiffs claiming that the wineries' websites violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not being accessible for the visually impaired.
The lawsuits, filed earlier this month by the Brooklyn-based Marks Law Firm on behalf of its visually-impaired client Kathy Wu, claim that the lack of website services like screen-reading software by 15 New York wineries, including Wölffer Estate, Bedell Cellars and Channing Daughters, discriminates against disabled customers.
“Approximately 8.1 million people in the United States are visually impaired, including 2 million who are blind,” the complaints state, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. “Approximately 400,000 visually impaired persons live in the state of New York.”
Representatives from Wölffer Estate, Bedell Cellars and Channing Daughters declined to comment on the pending litigation, as did staff at the Marks Law Firm.
Lawsuit Reform Alliance public affairs manager Adam Morey said he’s noticed an increasing trend of ADA Title III federal lawsuits filed against wineries and other small businesses in the past year. A study conducted in July by the Seyfarth Shaw Law Firm found that ADA lawsuits involving website accessibility hit record numbers this year—4,965 federal ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in the first six months of 2018 alone, according to the report, compared to the 7,663 that were filed for all of 2017. Of those 2018 suits, 1,026 were filed in New York.
“There aren’t clear guidelines from the [U.S.] Department of Justice on how the ADA applies to the Internet,” Morey told Wine Spectator. He believes law firms are taking advantage of the unclear regulations. “New York has quickly become the top jurisdiction for these lawsuits."
A Department of Justice spokesman told Wine Spectator that the department is still evaluating whether specific web-accessibility standards are necessary to ensure compliance with the ADA. More recently, the department has opted to refer to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as a compatible set of online-compliance standards.
New York courts have adapted and ordered businesses to comply with those standards in similar cases, such as a 2017 lawsuit involving Blick Art Materials, LLC and a visually-impaired customer. The guidelines suggest websites implement features like screen-reading software as well as make color, word spacing and text size customizable to website visitors.
Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, offers another solution. He recommends that wineries and other businesses with online platforms work directly with visually-impaired consumers.
“It basically incorporates human testing into the process of making a website accessible,” Danielsen said. “We are willing to work with companies on this, so that the website is not only technically accessible, but it’s actually working well for blind consumers.”
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