In May, Juan Carlos Gil, a legally blind Florida resident, sued about 50 AutoNation Inc. dealerships in Florida.
Gil claimed he couldn’t access their websites using his screen-reader software — a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 law that requires places of public accommodation to be fully accessible. His lawsuit sought to compel AutoNation, the largest new-vehicle retailer in the country, to make its websites compliant.
AutoNation is not alone as a target of such lawsuits. Dealerships are being swept up in litigation against businesses brought by disabled plaintiffs in several states. Seyfarth, a law firm that tracks ADA-related litigation, projects more than 2,400 federal website lawsuits will be filed in 2019, more than in each of the previous two years. Many of the cases end with financial settlements and commitments to improve accessibility online.
“Our advice to our clients is to promptly embark on this accessibility journey right away, because these lawsuits are not going away,” said Minh Vu, a partner at Seyfarth in Washington, D.C. “And it’s very important for people with disabilities” to access websites.
Several experts told Automotive News the cases have prompted dealerships to update their digital accessibility practices, something recommended even for dealerships that haven’t been sued. The legal actions hitting dealers involve both lawsuits and informal demands.
Many retailers first receive demand letters from plaintiffs’ lawyers before a lawsuit is filed, and some companies settle in response to those letters without waiting for the matter to progress to a lawsuit.
Because those settlements happen out of court, there’s no way to know how many such settlements are happening and what the terms are, said Randy Henrick, principal at dealership compliance firm Randy Henrick & Associates LLC.
It’s a dilemma for dealers. While courts have held that business websites are subject to the ADA, the federal government has not adopted compliance regulations (see box at right). That makes it hard to determine how much to spend on compliance, experts said.
Dealers also don’t have sole control of their websites, which are built by outside vendors with required content from automakers. Some third-party dealership website providers have partnered with companies that specialize in accessible technology, including AudioEye in Tucson, Ariz., and Israeli company EqualWeb.
“Not knowing what the law requires, I’m not going to tell a dealer to go out and spend $50,000,” said Henrick, a former regulatory and compliance lawyer for dealer technology vendor Dealertrack.
Digital access for people with disabilities could mean providing video captions for people hard of hearing or enabling keyboard navigation.
A sighted person, for instance, would know to click on an image of a shopping cart to add items for purchase, said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy group. Someone who uses a screen reader would need alternative text describing the image to perform the same task.
The federation is concerned about the influx of litigation, Danielsen said, adding that it files lawsuits only after working to resolve issues out of court.
Multiple plaintiffs’ lawyers who filed suits against dealers did not respond to messages seeking comment.
In September, Esserman Automotive Group in Doral, Fla., settled a lawsuit filed against its Volkswagen store in August.
“We went into this almost instantaneously wanting to get our websites ADA-compliant, because we saw no reason for them not to be,” Esserman CFO John Hoctor said.
The settlement was for a confidential amount Hoctor called “nominal.” The retailer also agreed to improve accessibility.
Businesses want to comply, said Haas Hatic, a lawyer at Greenspoon Marder LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who defended Esserman. Yet a dealership website has individual vehicle pages that frequently change, he said, and the federal government has not adopted a “good-faith standard” that allows for broken links or accessibility gaps without violating the ADA.
“Websites break down all the time,” Hatic said. “That doesn’t mean the person is being denied access to goods and services.”
Executives at AudioEye and EqualWeb said they can solve accessibility issues online using a mix of technology and human interaction.
AudioEye works on more than 3,000 dealership websites for providers such as Dealer.com, Dealer Inspire and Dealer Socket, said Ty D’Amore, AudioEye’s vice president of strategic partnerships. EqualWeb has inked a partnership with dealership software giant CDK Global Inc.
Companies that are proactive about accessibility can win business and support from people with disabilities and their families and friends, D’Amore said.
Dealers should work with website vendors to make accessibility features part of their website contracts, experts said.
Hoctor said Esserman is vetting consultants that can identify problems and develop a plan to fix them. But getting a third-party vendor to make the changes will be its hardest task, he added, since “we’re dependent on outside people to do it.”
AutoNation settled its case in June, committing to pay a nominal amount to cover attorneys’ costs and improve its websites’ accessibility. It denies Gil’s allegations.
“AutoNation is working to implement software solutions and other measures to enhance website accessibility in collaboration with our business partners,” Chief Marketing Officer Marc Cannon said. “Our efforts in this regard are ongoing.”