50 Bay Area wineries have been hit with disability lawsuits. Winegrowers call themselves “predators”

The first time Kevin Reid received a letter telling him his family was being sued, he assumed it was “some kind of spam.”

But the letters kept coming, and then a notice was delivered in person. A Florida resident named Andres Gomez was suing the Reid family for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because, according to the complaint, the Napa family winery’s website failed to meet accessibility standards.

Reid, who uses a wheelchair due to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, had heard rumors that wineries would be targeted in lawsuits like this, “because wineries are perceived to have a lot of money”. But he never thought it would happen to him. The business his parents started, Reid Family Vineyards, is tiny, producing just 1,000 cases of wine a year, with what Reid described as “a silly little WordPress website.”

Reid Family Vineyards is one of at least 50 California wineries that Gomez has sued so far this year over website accessibility issues.

“We finally realized no, it’s real,” Reid said. “It’s not a ‘fix your website’ thing – it’s already been filed.”

Kevin Reid’s sister-in-law, Erin Reid, brings her daughter Evangeline to see her uncle with “Zelda the Wonderful Doggie”. Reid Family Vineyards is one of 50 Bay Area wineries sued over website accessibility issues by a Florida resident.

Deanne Fitzmaurice / Special for The Chronicle

The Reids were told that settling with Gomez was their best option, as going to trial would inevitably cost more. In an initial meeting, Gomez’s attorneys asked for $28,000, according to Reid. They ended up settling for $8,000. Attorneys at the law firm representing Gomez, Potter Handy of San Diego, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The practice, Reid said, felt “predatory.”

The wine industry is among many groups targeted in recent times by a siege of lawsuits against the ADA, many of which are being addressed by Potter Handy. On Monday, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and his Los Angeles counterpart, George Gascón, asked a judge to halt any further action by Potter Handy regarding what they described as “malicious prosecution and boilerplate,” accusing the company’s defendants of filing fraudulent complaints. Prosecutors are asking that the settlement money be returned to the defendants.

Other Napa and Sonoma County wineries named in the website’s lawsuits include Jackson Family Wines, Grgich Hills Estate, PlumpJack Wine Co., Red Car Wine Co. and Foley Family Wines.

Even wealthy companies like Vintage Wine Estates, a publicly traded company that owns 37 wineries, have chosen to settle these cases. “It’s just too expensive to fight them,” said CEO Pat Roney, whose Viansa Winery in Sonoma faces a lawsuit from Gomez. “It’s a jolt.” Roney said his company uses software to check the accessibility of its websites, but the standards change frequently and “sometimes things change faster than our ability to be aware of them.”

Gomez’s lawsuits claim he is visually impaired and that the wineries’ websites “denied him full use and enjoyment of facilities, goods and services.” Under the ADA, brick-and-mortar businesses that operate websites must meet certain accessibility standards to accommodate the visually impaired. A common violation he alleged is that images on a website do not have a text equivalent that could be interpreted by a screen reader. Gomez also complained of “too low a contrast to allow background and foreground elements to be differentiated.”

Kevin Reid, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, works at his family winery, Reid Family Vineyards in Napa, Calif., Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

Kevin Reid, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, works at his family winery, Reid Family Vineyards in Napa, Calif., Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

Deanne Fitzmaurice / Special for The Chronicle

For defendants like Reid, the motivation behind the flurry of lawsuits seems “obviously obvious.” “The end result is to make money, not to make sure things are compliant,” he said. “If the end result was to make companies compliant, they would give you notice.”

State legislators are considering changes to the ADA enforcement protocol. Last year, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside County) introduced HR-77, which would require an aggrieved person to notify a business owner of an accessibility issue and give them the opportunity to do so. resolve before taking legal action. It’s the kind of opportunity Reid said he would have appreciated. “We need to protect businesses and improve the lives of people who need ADA compliance,” he said, and these lawsuits accomplish neither.

Serial ADA lawsuits targeting a specific industry are nothing new, said Martin Orlick, a San Francisco attorney at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell who specializes in ADA compliance. But the courts – and the public – are losing patience. Orlick, who serves on the U.S. District Court Advisory Committee for the Northern District of California, said those cases now take up 25 to 30 percent of the district’s civil case list. His committee is evaluating new proceedings on how the court will deal with them.

Disability lawsuits can draw significant attention to business failures. Orlick has represented several Bay Area wineries in the past that have faced lawsuits for architectural barriers — some tasting rooms, for example, had gravel parking lots or lacked ramps. Many winery owners were simply unaware of the ADA requirements, and the publicity of some of these lawsuits likely led to improved accessibility standards in many tasting rooms.

The stakes are higher for businesses today than in the past. Whereas a decade ago a defendant could expect to settle $5,000 or $10,000 in one of these lawsuits, Orlick said it’s now common to see settlements of $15,000 at $25,000 in an architectural barrier case and $15,000 to $45,000 in a website case.

Kevin Reid, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, works at his family winery, Reid Family Vineyards in Napa, Calif., Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

Kevin Reid, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, works at his family winery, Reid Family Vineyards in Napa, Calif., Wednesday, April 13, 2022.

Deanne Fitzmaurice / Special for The Chronicle

If any of the complaints from the winery’s website were to go to trial, which they almost never do, Orlick predicted that Gomez would not prevail. The plaintiff would have to prove that he suffered harm as a result of the website accessibility failures. He will also have to prove that he is a bona fide customer, genuinely trying to buy a product or service like a bottle of wine or a tour. In Orlick’s opinion, it would be clear to anyone looking at these cases that Gomez “has no dog in this fight.”

Orlick urged wineries facing disability lawsuits to consider going to trial instead of settling, “because these cases are winnable.” (His firm is representing defendants in these cases, so he might have a financial interest in bringing the cases to trial.) He also recommended that all wineries hire an experienced accessibility consultant for their websites.

Reid, meanwhile, remained hopeful that pending legislation could permanently change the situation for California business owners. He didn’t expect to get his $8,000 settlement back, but he thought the serial lawsuits deserved closer scrutiny to prevent companies like his from being targeted in the future.

And he hoped it wouldn’t distract from other accessibility issues in Napa. Sometimes, for example, lower bar seats meant to be reserved for wheelchair users in restaurants and tasting rooms are instead used for glass or plate storage, he said, and staff need to quickly rearrange to seat it. Reid works to increase awareness of the needs of people with disabilities within the local wine industry through his Crush MS organization that raises funds for research. “Part of our winery’s existence is helping people with disabilities,” Reid said.


Esther Mobley is the wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected]
Twitter:
@Esther_mobley

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