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ADA lawsuits targeting hotels' websites for not disclosing how accessible they are

Florida Keys Keynoter - 1/23/2019

Jan. 23--A Fort Lauderdale woman and her attorney who have reached settlements with at least 20 hotels and motels in Florida over the businesses' websites not explaining how their properties meet the needs of people with disabilities have set their sights on two Keys resorts.

Cheri Honeywell and her attorney, Jessica Kerr, of the Advocacy Group in Fort Lauderdale, filed lawsuits this month in federal court against the Glunz Ocean Beach Hotel and Resort in Key Colony Beach and Casa Morada in Islamorada.

The suits state that the hotels violated the Americans With Disabilities Act because their websites' reservations systems "fail to provide information about the accessible features of the hotel and its rooms to persons with disabilities."

"Ms. Honeywell desired to book an accessible room, however, the website failed to provide any information regarding accessibility of the hotel or rooms, so she was unable to do so," Kerr said in an email Tuesday. "She is hopeful the hotels will remove the barriers to access so she can book a room for her travels to the Florida Keys with family."

Honeywell and Kerr have filed at least 31 lawsuits against hotels, motels and resorts throughout the state, starting with businesses in North Florida in June 2018. The hotels typically settle with Honeywell and Kerr within a few months, according to a review of the cases. Kerr would not disclose the details of the settlements.

"Any settlement is governed by a confidentiality provision required by both parties," she said. "Neither party nor counsel can comment as to the settlement terms."

Requests for comment from Glunz Ocean Beach Hotel and Casa Morada went unanswered.

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, hotels, restaurants and other businesses have been subject to lawsuits by plaintiffs arguing facilities aren't properly set up to accommodate people requiring wheelchairs and those with other disabilities.

In the online era, ADA litigation has taken new forms. Most recently, people with hearing and vision problems have been suing businesses because of difficulties accessing and navigating their websites.

Cases like Honeywell's are a sort of hybrid where because a hotel's online reservation system does not explain handicap accessibility features, those with disabilities encounter physical barriers when they arrive at the property, said Anastasia Protopapadakis, an ADA defense attorney with the Miami firm Gray-Robinson.

"The room must be taken out of inventory and held to ensure that's the room you are getting," Protopapadakis said.

Honeywell's suits argue that by not explaining in detail how the hotels are or are not accessible to people with disabilities, people with disabilities do not have the same "benefits and privileges afforded to guests without disabilities."

"I had a client with ALS who booked a hotel room that was supposed to be accessible," Kerr said. "Ended up, there was no compliant roll-in shower. Despite the wife's best efforts to bath him, he was unable to bathe for several weeks during their stay."

But, Protopapadakis said the lawsuits have gotten to the point where the plaintiffs aren't necessarily going to a hotel's website to book rooms, but rather to look for ADA violations.

"There's a question of whether it's really the plaintiff encountering the barrier," she said. "It's a problem for Florida. We are a tourist state. We rely on tourists."

Protopapadakis said the proliferation of lawsuits like Honeywell's is having the "unintended effect" of less web access for people with disabilities looking to book rooms. Many lodging establishments, particularly the smaller ones, are in many cases opting "just to take their websites down" in a preemptive move to avoid being sued, she said.


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