Spurred by a 60-Minutes investigation, the Florida Legislature is moving to shut down a cottage industry of shady lawsuits that has grown up around the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Before the House voted 117-0 to approve his bill, Daytona Beach Republican Tom Leek called it a creative way to serve consumers with physical disabilities, and business owners worried about lawsuits.
“What this law would do would create a voluntary program that promotes accessibility, provides guidance to businesses that need it, and a tool to courts to reject attorneys’ fees.”
Last year, CBS’ “60 Minutes” detailed an explosion of so-called drive by lawsuits that business owners say amount to little more than a legal shakedown. Lawyers claim violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act and threaten business owners with costly litigation. Leek says it’s gotten out of hand.
“Drive by lawsuits have doubled in the last six years. There have been 6,000 of these lawsuits filed since 2012. Florida is currently the second in the nation for the proliferation of these lawsuits.”
And Leek should know. He’s an attorney who has defended business owners against the suits.
“And so, as I’m going through and defending the cases, I’m thinking, you’ve got a problem. The first problem is, these businesses aren’t coming into compliance voluntarily. The second problem is, you’ve got these lawsuits that are putting them out of business.”
Leek’s solution is to order the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation to create a voluntary program. Certified experts would inspect a business, identify problems, and help the business owner come into compliance.
Participating businesses can expand their customer base and avoid expensive litigation at the same time. Disability rights advocate J.R. Harding of Tallahassee supports the legislation.
“Government should always lead by example. And as our community continues to age, the need for more accessible environments, both electronically and physically, is going to increase.”
Harding, who uses a wheel chair, heads the not-for-profit Florida Alliance for Assistive Technology and Services. He says bill sponsors deserve credit for encouraging more businesses to comply with the ADA.
But when pressed, Harding acknowledges there’s much more policy makers could be doing.
“The code is a minimum standard. So I would ask you, is minimum an acceptable standard for your home? For your grandkids? No. That’s what gets the disability community frustrated.”
Sunrise Democratic Representative Katie Edwards says she co-sponsored the legislation to show that good ideas transcend partisan politics.
“It’s a good example of what strong public policy can look like with Republicans and Democrats fighting toward a unified issue, making a positive impact for all Floridians.”
And Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association general counsel Richard Turner says the legislation would level the playing field for mom and pop retailers.
“No. 1, is they provide a resource for businesses, and I’m not talking about the major chains. I’m talking about the small business person who may not have the money and the staff to research every federal and state law there is.”
Earlier this week, the Senate unanimously agreed with the House, sending the legislation off to Governor Rick Scott for almost certain approval.