Tahoe business owners work to avoid disability-access lawsuits
Some call it legal extortion. Others call it the only way motels, restaurants and other public buildings will be made accessible to the disabled.
How South Lake Tahoe business owners, and restaurants in particular, can protect themselves from getting slapped with a lawsuit for not complying with Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 was the question.
“I’m here to inform you what’s going on in the litigation community, because it’s quite a racket right now,” said Catherine Corfee, an attorney from Sacramento who specializes in employment and ADA access law. “It’s amazing what they are suing over. It’s ridiculous. They are just really pushing the envelope.”
Corfee told about 20 business owners gathered at South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce workshop on Tuesday that the best way to avoid being hit with an expensive lawsuit is to be proactive.
“Access is the best defense,” Corfee said. “Get a plan to put in your access and have someone knowledgeable do it.”
Business owners at South Lake Tahoe have dealt with ADA lawsuits since about 1997, said Dennis Crabb, a South Lake Tahoe attorney and former attorney for the city.
The lawsuits often come in spurts filed by attorneys and their disabled clients who come to town with the sole purpose of finding businesses to sue. Why? Because there is money to be made.
California, and a handful of other states that include Nevada, according to Corfee, has a law that allows for plaintiffs to collect damages. And that damage can occur without an incident.
Sometimes the disabled person does not even get out of their car. They just drive by businesses that don’t have parking lots with adequate ADA access. Later the owner either gets a letter from an attorney that informs them of harm caused to the client, which can be emotional distress, and requests that the business be made more accessible. Or the owner just gets a notice that a lawsuit has been filed against him or her.
“So many cases get settled because it’s so expensive to go to trial and there’s that sympathy needle,” Corfee said. “Some attorneys ask for $50,000. You never like it. You feel like it’s legal extortion.”
Jerry Birdwell, president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association, said filing of lawsuits against motels and hotels has abated. But there are indications that restaurants have become a target, said Cheryl Sillings, a stockbroker and vice president of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
“I think it’s going to cause a backlash,” Sillings said. “It is a few disabled people trying to profit.”
David Kelly, president of the Tahoe Area Coordinating Council for the Disabled, agreed with Sillings and said that the answer is for both parties to work together to make South Lake Tahoe more ADA compliant. He added that the city and its public transit system have come a long way and done a lot of work to create access for the disabled.
“You can make the same progress without having to do what they are doing,” Kelly said. “I would never do that. We’re not the bad guy. We’re there to help.”
Kelly’s advice for businesses who might be vulnerable to a lawsuit: Write it down. Improvements made to increase accessibility should be documented.
Marv Bergthold, who owns a motel at Stateline, attended the workshop. He said the issue is not a new one for him.
“I’ve done some things already,” Bergthold said. “Created handicapped parking, made (the motel) van accessible, put handicapped (facilities) in 14 rooms even though I think I only needed it in one.”
Bergthold said he gets calls from people who ask if his motel provides access for the disabled.
“You don’t know if somebody is working you up or not,” he said. “You just have to be very accommodating.”
Corfee recommended that owners get their places of business surveyed by a professional such as an architect or a building official that knows the ADA requirements.
City of South Lake Tahoe staff will inspect existing buildings and point out what needs to change. They also make sure plans for new buildings are ADA compliant.
“We’re not going to design it for them,” said Kevin Gattis, building official for the city, “but we will direct them to a licensed California architect.”
Gattis said he knows of about 15 to 20 lawsuits that were filed against South Lake Tahoe businesses. The bulk of them, he said, started about three years ago and were against motels.
The next workshop sponsored by the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, “Leading the Generations in Today’s Workforce,” will be Monday at Lake Tahoe Community College from 9 a.m. to noon in the Student Center. It costs $40 to attend. For more information, call the chamber at (530) 541-5255.