Last week, Florida Federal District Judge Robert Scola ruled that Title III of the ADA required the Winn-Dixie website to be accessible to people with disabilities. In a bench trial, the plaintiff, a blind man using screen reading technology to access the internet, obtained injunctive relief.
Title III prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in places of public accommodation. This is the first court to hold that Title III accessibility requirements apply to a virtual space. Judge Scola issued a verdict and draft injunction holding that Winn-Dixie’s website violated Title II of the ADA because the plaintiff could not use it to order prescriptions or download coupons. The ruling is significant for several reasons.
First, the injunction used the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) as the accessibility standard under Title III. Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Justice (DOJ) used the WCAG 2.0 for its interim accessibility regulations, to be finalized in 2018. The WCAG 2.0 was developed by the private Website Accessibility Initiative and is considered the standard for disability based accessibility.
Second, the court held that Title III applies to the Winn-Dixie website because the site “operates as a gateway to the physical store locations.”
Third, the court ruled that Winn-Dixie had a legal obligation to ensure that third party vendors operating their website comply with Title III accessibility requirements.
While the holding is not binding on other federal courts, it is in line with the DOJ approach to Title III accessibility for websites and will likely encourage further litigation.
The Court’s ruling underscores the growing recognition that online commerce has achieved with the courts. While Winn-Dixie is a larger organization, the reasoning could apply to smaller businesses; it is also likely that similar rulings will occur across the country. Business owners and executives should consider their internet spaces as part of their regular commercial space that will be increasingly governed by a wide array of legislative and regulatory requirements.