A United States District Court judge in Florida earlier this week ruled against grocer Winn Dixie in a lawsuit alleging that Winn Dixie’s website failed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After a bench trial, the Court ruled that the services offered on the grocer’s website, which included, among others, the online pharmacy management system, the ability to access digital coupons that link automatically to a customer’s rewards card, and the ability to find store locations, were “undoubtedly services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations offered by Winn Dixie’s physical store locations.” The Court noted that these services are especially important to visually impaired individuals for whom it would be difficult or impossible to use paper coupons found in newspapers, to locate the physical stores by other means, and to physically go to a pharmacy location in order to fill prescriptions.
The Court concluded that Winn Dixie’s website must meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which it found to be the current industry standard. Winn Dixie argued that bringing its website into compliance would cost $250,000 and would constitute an undue burden. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the cost “pales in comparison” to the $9 million Winn Dixie spent in creating the current version of its website.
An important part of the decision was the Court’s conclusion that Winn Dixie was responsible for those parts of its websites that were operated by third-party vendors. The Court stated that Winn Dixie had a legal obligation to its website users to ensure that the third-party services which operated within Winn Dixie's website were accessible to all by tablet, computer and phone.
This is the first website ADA case to go to trial anywhere in the country. Because it comes out of Florida, it does not have precedential effect in Michigan. But the decision is significant because it could be a precursor to what we see from other courts. Over the past year, a number of Michigan banks have received demands from lawyers representing visually impaired individuals. The result in the Winn Dixie case will certainly embolden those attorneys.
There are some things that you can do now to avoid potential liability:
- Engage experienced outside legal counsel to guide an evaluation of your website and your risk. Doing so will help keep your internal communications about the website confidential and protected from disclosure to plaintiff attorneys.
- With your legal counsel, evaluate the website for accessibility.
- Through your investigation, consider potential website changes.
If you receive a demand letter or would like to discuss how to make your website less of a target, our team is ready to help. Members of Warner Norcross & Judd’s Regulatory & Compliance Group are currently advising clients on these issues and are available for consultation.