Smart move to strengthen ADA, protect business owners and eliminate frivolous lawsuits

Daytona Beach News-Journal

President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990.
President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990. AP

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, many Floridians struggled to survive in a world of barriers, like curbs and stairs impassible to wheelchair users or menus that a blind person couldn’t see.

The law has opened doors — sometimes literally — for millions of people shut out of activities that most Americans take for granted, things as crucial as holding a job, or as simple as looking in a mirror.

The act’s benefits are undeniable. But it’s also clear that the law has been abused by a handful of profiteering attorneys who shake down businesses, demanding cash for violations that often seem minor, like a parking place that’s a few inches too narrow. Florida has been at the forefront of so-called “drive-by lawsuits,” where the apparent aim of threatened litigation is to line lawyers’ pockets. The venerable CBS news show “60 Minutes” described one attorney who is suspected of using Google Earth to find hotels that don’t have pool lifts for wheelchair users. One disabled person, represented by that attorney, sued 60 South Florida hotels in 60 days over pool lifts, the show reported.

That puts policy makers in a bind. How do they protect the millions of Americans who have benefited from the ADA, but also safeguard businesses being targeted unfairly? One lawmaker may have hit on the right solution.

State Rep. Tom Leek, a Daytona Beach attorney, has defended local hoteliers against ADA claims. But Leek’s proposed legislation would not undermine the protections that the state and federal governments have put in place to help those with disabilities.

In fact, it may make them stronger.

Under Leek’s bill (HB 727) the state would license experts to advise businesses in ADA compliance. Nobody would be forced to hire an expert — but businesses that did would gain some protection against extortionate lawsuits.

The legislation faces an uphill climb this year, and has no Senate companion bill. But Leek’s approach makes sense, on several levels.

The ADA has long relied on the “stick” of ruinous legal damages to pressure businesses into compliance; this legislation adds a reward — protection from some litigation-related expenses and a shield that makes them less vulnerable to exploitive lawsuits — for Florida business owners who make the right decisions to comply with the law’s requirements. And because the protections only kick in when businesses hire qualified experts, they’re less likely to try to go it alone and make the kind of small but costly mistakes that are spurring much of the more frivolous litigation. Meanwhile, this law does nothing to protect the true scofflaws; in fact, it frees up time for dedicated advocates and courts to go after those who blatantly defy the law.

That’s the right approach, because the teeth of the ADA are still needed — to ensure that people living with disabilities aren’t denied the fundamental dignity of shopping for their own groceries, using a public restroom or boarding a bus. These are the kinds of problems the ADA was meant to address, and Leek’s bill poses no threat to those whose complaints are truly justified.

Rather, it’s a fair, common-sense solution to a real problem. That merits attention from legislative leaders — and, at the very least, a hearing.

This editorial originally appeared in The News-Journal in Daytona Beach.