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Companies across America are getting sued for violating Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) and the Americans with Disabilities Act. These regulations were created to protect people with disabilities and help them to access web content without barriers.
However, the nature of the regulations means that companies are often at the mercy of vague laws and hefty fines if their websites are found to be in violation. Below we’ll break down what these suits look like, who is getting sued, and what you can do to help try and prevent any actions being taken against your website.
What Happens When You’re Sued?
If you’ve ever wondered just what happens when someone files a web accessibility lawsuit against you, here’s a breakdown. Remember, making an accessible website that follows the WCAG 2.0 and ADA Section 508 regulations isn’t just good for your user base, it can protect you against costly fines and litigation.
When someone files a lawsuit because your website does not meet the accessibility standards and rules, this is what you can expect to happen:
1. A Notice Arrives
You will be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against you and advised about which standards your site does not meet. You may be told what damages the person is seeking due to your failure to comply.
2. Time to Lawyer Up!
You’re going to need to prepare your defense strategy, and you’ll need a lawyer to do it well. This can be an extremely expensive endeavor, but it’s necessary to find a lawyer who is an expert in internet accessibility law, as well as in equal rights. Get ready to build a case and refute any charges the plaintiff may be bringing against you. The goal of this part is to put together a solid defense that your website is actually accessible and be able to demonstrate that you are compliant.
3. Go to Trial
Now that your defense is (hopefully) ready, you will likely need to go to trial. This is more than a mere inconvenience where you will have to miss work, it can come with hefty fines. The penalty for not meeting accessibility standards can be in the range of $50k to $100k.
4. Make Your Case
This can get tricky. While you may be correct, and your site is in fact accessible, you’ll need an expert witness to attest to that fact. If you are a reputable web developer, you may count as the expert, but if you’re not get ready to pay. You’ll need to hire an impartial technical expert to be a witness in your case and who can provide a detailed technical review proving that your site is accessible.
5. And The Winner Is…
No one. If your site is compliant and you technically win the case, it’s still not over. The plaintiff can appeal to higher courts dragging the case out for years and costing even more. Even if you win, recovering the money you had to pay for the lawyer and court fees can be extremely difficult to do. In some cases, the judge may award you some damages to pay for the legal fees, but this can be put on a payment plan that is paid out in small sums over a number of years.
If your site is found to be noncompliant, then things get even more expensive as you will be expected to pay a fine at the judge’s discretion.
At the end of this process, your bank account will look a bit like this no matter what the ruling is:
Lawyers’ Fees + Work Missed + Technical Expert Witness + Court Fees and Fines = $$$$
Not to mention the negative press that can come with such an unpleasant process. While you might think these are rare cases, accessibility lawsuits are becoming commonplace for businesses. One of the reasons so many are filed is because many businesses decide to settle out of court rather than going through the trial process.
Every Company Is At Risk
Think that big businesses are all aware of these penalties and are complying with the rules? Wrong. While it seems like a no-brainer that companies with large teams of people working on their websites would be sure to protect themselves from accessibility lawsuits, they are still getting slammed with hefty fines.
Just this year, Greyhound was ordered to pay $300,000 to specific people who were impacted by their failure to comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That’s in addition to the standard $75,000 they were forced to pay as a civil penalty for their noncompliance. How long did they have to come up with the $75,000? Just 15 days.
Think you could come up with that kind of cash within 15 days if you’re found violating the laws?
The penalty that Greyhound needed to pay pales in comparison to what other companies have had to shell out. In fact, a ruling against Target saw the company paying class damages of $6 million and compensating The National Federation of the Blind for their attorney’s fees and costs which exceeding $3.5 million. The costly impacts of violating the web accessibility guidelines simply can’t be overstated.
In an interesting twist, The National Museum of Crime and Punishment was found to be in violation of the ADA in numerous ways. Their settlement extended well beyond fixing their website to include hiring new staff members and implementing new policies. The consequences of being in violation of the ADA rules can have lasting effects. Instead of paying a fine and legal fees, there could be actions taken that impact your staff and the way you do your work in general.
What Are the Regulations?
Now you’re probably wondering how the law is enforced, and what steps need to be taken to ensure you don’t get caught violating it. Well, that is possibly the most frustrating issue in this whole situation. The website accessibility laws are extremely open to interpretation.
Currently, there is no certification process that will prove you are compliant. This means that why you might think you’re doing everything correctly; the law could be interpreted to rule that you are not complying. Simply interpreting the accessibility laws in a different way could mean you’re in violation of a rule you thought you had taken care of on your website.
Is there a resolution to this uncertainty in the works? The answer is a definite maybe. According to Legal News Line the clarity might not come for a long time, “Robert Rooney…who represents defendants in mass and class action lawsuits, says the DOJ first began promising regulations on Title III web accessibility in 2010.
However, the department has now said it plans to publish those in 2018.” If the previous inactivity is any indication of future events, it could take a lot longer for any formal regulations to materialize.
What Can You Do?
The best defense is to make sure your website complies with as many accessibility standards as possible from the start. While you may not be able to tell with certainty that your site is 100% compliant due to vague regulations with multiple interpretations, it’s important to do your best to try. Otherwise, you are going to find yourself in the very good company of other website owners who have gotten caught in costly accessibility lawsuits.
You need to be careful and continually check the changing regulations and you will hopefully avoid expensive fines and embarrassing public lawsuits. We can all hope for clarification in 2018 that will make this process easier, but until the rules are set in stone, everyone must be prepared for the possibility of a lawsuit.
Have you been through an accessibility lawsuit, or do have you heard horror stories? Let us know what you learned and how other site’s might be able to prevent them in the comments below.