Winn-Dixie or Lose Dixie?
26 May 2021
The judgment in the Winn-Dixie case has finally been revealed: those hoping to see legal clarity, and the establishment and big business that support those with disabilities, will be less than satisfied. But who is the real loser and what will the medium to long-term effect be on how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) upholds the rights of the disabled to freely access digital content? Detailed review and article available, PDF (opens in a new window)
Is the ‘win’ really a ‘loss’ for the supermarket chain, their legal firm and those with disabilities?
Winn-Dixie may have won their recent case against Juan Carlos Gil but doubt remains over whether there are any real beneficiaries from this decision. Lawrence Shaw, the CEO of ADA InsurTech company, AAAtraq www.AAAtraq.com (opens in a new window) provides his view on the next chapter in this case.
After several years, the US Eleventh Circuit Court finally delivered its ruling in the case against supermarket chain Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. over its alleged breaches of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To the dismay of many disability groups and plaintiff lawyers, the court found in Winn-Dixie’s favour, ruling that websites are not places of public accommodation under the ADA.
The plaintiff’s lawyers, FisherBroyles, has subsequently posted a self-congratulating news item on its website referring to a ‘landmark case’ win for its client (opens in a new window).
Winn-Dixie themselves has fought the case ever since losing in a lower court several years ago.
The question is: is there is a winner in this case? Winn-Dixie and FisherBroyles have fought hard to maintain the right to publish content that cannot be easily accessed by disabled customers. Not only will the legal action have been costly and distracting, but the end result surely can’t be a positive one for their brand and loyal customers, many of whom will have disabilities.”
A more positive route for Winn-Dixie, would have been to make their digital content accessible and comply with the spirit of the ADA. In all probability, this positive stance would have cost far less, and the resultant PR presented their brand in a positive light.
Some would say this was a lost opportunity to position themselves as champions of the ADA, rather than to oppose it.
What is more perplexing is that Winn-Dixie and their parent Southeastern Grocers have strong accessibility statements on their websites, which flies in the face of the firm’s strenuous legal fight to justify why they are not required to do exactly what SE Grocers proudly boast they are already doing.
An extract from the SE Grocers accessibility policy states: “At SE Grocers, we’re committed to accessibility. It is our policy to ensure that everyone, including persons with disabilities, has full and equal access to our digital offerings.”
FisherBroyles has been quick to celebrate the victory, hailing the appeal decision as a win for businesses. Those celebrations, and now possible confusion or even excuses for brands, mark the fact they have made it more difficult (in the short term, at least) for those with disabilities to access information and services online.
In a world where dependency on digital information and services is rising exponentially, this debate will not simply go away. The ruling could be seen as supporting a view that ADA does not apply online. However, we are now so dependent on digital technology and content, and there is more than enough precedent from prior court rulings to encourage plaintiff lawyers to continue to bring cases under the premise that firms cannot (and should not) discriminate.
Federal legislators will be under increased pressure to adapt the ADA rules to encompass online activity. Firms cannot afford to ignore the financial or brand risk, and they should be ready for when Congress expands the reach and authority of the ADA to ensure full and barrier-free access to all.
This case will remind many of the arguments that occurred when the ADA was initially introduced. Organizations argued against the need to install ramps, light switches at accessible levels and other such systems. Those who fought the rules and eventually lost suffered not only financial penalties, but badly undermined their brands and will forever be known as the ones who fought against disabled rights. Now, it is inconceivable for a new building not to have physical systems in place that adhere to ADA regulations.
Further detail on this story and the analysis on the FisherBroyles and Winn Dixie websites can be found here https://AAAtraq.com/static/docs/winn-dixie-report.pdf (opens in a new window)
Web page audits completed on April 19th, 2021
Case // D.C. Docket No. 1:16-cv-23020-RNS https://media.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/files/201713467.pdf (opens in a new window)
Winn-Dixie’s website accessibility statement https://www.winndixie.com/about/accessibility-statement (opens in a new window)
Southeastern Grocers website accessibility policy https://www.segrocers.com/-/media/media/weekly-bau-content/wk30-2020/SE-Grocers-Website-Accessibility-Policy.pdf (opens in a new window)
For further information contact: Laura Shilstone - lshilstone@AAAtraq.com (opens in a new window)
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