There’s trouble facing businesses nationwide, including those in the insurance space, coming in the form of lawsuits on behalf of visually impaired individuals against the owners and operators of websites not optimized for screen-reader technology.
No industry seems to be immune from the wave of complaints and demand letters from plaintiffs’ attorneys claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law requiring that public places – this includes hotels, restaurants, shops and, yes, insurance-related establishments – be accessible to people with disabilities.
In the past, ADA disputes often involved a business’s failure to provide a wheelchair ramp or handrails. But in today’s digital world, with online transactions a critical cog in the wheel of commerce, the scope of ADA litigation has grown to include website-access lawsuits. Whether actual or threatened, these ADA claims have become all too prevalent. I see them more and more in my own practice, representing insurance producers being singled out by opportunistic legal counsel. And my experience is certainly not an anomaly. Statistics suggest the number of lawsuits over inaccessible websites filed in federal courts has nearly tripled over the past couple of years.
In view of this surge in claims, companies within the insurance sector need to know the prevailing judicial view. The ADA and some state laws, such as California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, require them to make their websites accessible to visually impaired customers. To that end, websites must be coded to allow words to be converted to audio translations by way of screen-reading software. An even newer trend in ADA cases requires video to be understood by visually impaired individuals by way of adequate written descriptions of voiced content. Likewise, keyboard commands must be available so those unable to handle a mouse can use a website’s interactive functions.
Domino’s, the leading pizza chain, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the topic, arguing these website-access lawsuits are a nuisance and the federal government has yet to disseminate rules governing how to make web platforms ADA compliant. The high court will decide whether to hear the case, Domino’s Pizza v. Guillermo Robles, this fall.
In the meantime, it’s important to understand failure to abide by the ADA can be quite costly. An insurance carrier or producer violating ADA regulations – or state laws – may be subject to compensatory, statutory and punitive damages and fines, not to mention the high price of litigation.
Given that the U.S. is home to more than eight million visually impaired or blind people, sight-related ADA claims may serve a legitimate purpose. Nevertheless, unscrupulous plaintiffs and lawyers have been known to take advantage of the law to squeeze companies for lucrative settlements. Unfortunately for some, website-access lawsuits are about gaming the system for profit.Insurance-related businesses are encouraged to take steps to ensure ADA compliance with the standard Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 (Google it).
In the absence of relevant governmental rules and procedures, WCAG aims to provide a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, (including the disabled) organizations and governments.
The news isn’t entirely bleak. Tools are available to check websites for legal incompatibilities. For companies in the insurance space not in compliance, the cost to implement necessary fixes doesn’t have to break the bank, though the expense will vary depending upon website complexity.
Robinson is founding partner of Michelman & Robinson LLP, a national law firm headquartered in Los Angeles. He is an insurance industry specialist, who primarily represents retail brokers and agents, and a recognized authority on regulatory issues. Phone: 310-299-5500. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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