Just as occupancy rates have started to increase, so have lawsuits against small lodging properties claiming violations of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). While most properties are familiar with the spate of lawsuits regarding physical accessibility at a property’s location, there’s a new tactic appearing in recent complaints: lawsuits over inadequate virtual accessibility to accommodations.
Plaintiffs are suing properties whose websites are not up to the standards required by the ADA for making reservations. Making these suits more troubling for small operators is that they often include claims about property listing on OTA (third-party booking) sites that aren’t accessible. That includes listings on sites like Expedia, Hotels.com, Booking.com, Orbitz, Priceline, Cheaptickets, Agoda, and Travelocity—sites that often do not provide property owners with the ability to provide users with the details necessary to meet ADA rules.
For example, a B&B in New Mexico found itself the target of such a suit last November by a plaintiff claiming to have sought to book an ADA-compliant room via an OTA. The B&B offers nine guest rooms, including one accessible guest room. However, the plaintiff stated that when she planned to visit in September, she could not find enough information about the property’s accessibility features on the property’s OTA listings.
It’s important to note that the same plaintiff has filed lawsuits against 10 independent lodging properties in New Mexico making the same claim. Even though she might have elected to use an individual property’s website or online booking engine, where such information might have been available, her suits rely on the lack of the required information on the OTA site.
All these suits, and others like them, have a few things in common:
- They cite the section of the federal rules under the ADA concerning the information provided to individuals with disabilities about accessible features and the means of reserving accessible rooms.
- They were filed despite the fact that these OTAs do not allow lodging providers to document the details necessary to comply with the law.
- They were filed against the individual small properties, rather than taking a complaint directly to or legal action against the OTAs.
What can you do?
The first way to protect yourself is to update your own website to be ADA compliant if you haven’t done so already. The regulations require, among other things, that individuals with disabilities must be able to make reservations the same ways and during the same hours as all other guests—online, by email, by phone, etc. Those customers also must be provided with enough information about the accessibility features of the property and the room(s) so they can make their own decisions as to the suitability of the property for their particular needs.
You also should ensure, to the extent possible, that your third-party listings, including your reservation system and OTA listings, are similarly updated. Because many OTAs are not providing property owners with the ability to have ADA-compliant listings, you may choose to entirely remove your listing from third-party sites as a preventive measure. That is likely not a viable economic option for most small properties, however, in which case you should consider the following steps:
- Update all your various listings as much as possible.
- Write to your third-party (OTA) representative, requesting they update their system to allow accommodation providers to include the necessary information to meet ADA requirements.
Continue to follow-up until you get a response.
- Keep all your correspondence for future reference should the industry find it necessary to address this situation as a whole, in a similar fashion to the previous Expedia class-action lawsuit.
These “virtual” access lawsuits are most likely not going away any time soon. We are currently seeing an increase of such cases in California, and we expect the trend to continue to the rest of the States as well. Therefore, now is the best time for you to take action, before any action is taken against you.
Please be aware that, even should you update all your information, you might still face an ADA-related lawsuit. While we believe having your information updated to the greatest extent possible is in the best interest of all properties—and your customers—we would urge you to seek legal counsel from your attorneys if you have any questions about ADA compliance.
In 1996, after almost a decade of solely working in the corporate world of software development and design, Lisa Kolb and her husband Mark moved to Colorado Springs to open a bed and breakfast. While doing software support and development for their bed and breakfast and a local bed and breakfast organization’s website, the need for a low-cost quality solution for the online marketing needs of other small businesses became glaringly apparent. In March 2002, Mark and Lisa formed Acorn Internet Services, Inc., now Acorn Marketing, which is currently providing services for hundreds of satisfied clients, with a customer base that is growing daily. Acorn Marketing specializes in Bed and Breakfast and Small & Independent Lodging Property Website Designs, Marketing, Hosting, Revenue Management, Education and so much more! Knowledge is power!