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A supermarket chain whose website is inaccessible to a visually impaired person did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does not list websites as among places of public accommodation that are subject to the law, a federal appeals court said in a divided opinion Wednesday that overturned a lower court ruling.
Juan Carlos Gil, a visually impaired, long-time customer of Jacksonville, Florida-based Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., whose website does not have compatible screen reader software, filed suit against the chain in U.S. District Court in Miami, charging it with violating the ADA, according to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta’s ruling in Juan Carlos Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc.
The lower court refused to dismiss the case and was overturned by an appeals court panel in a 2-1 ruling.
“The statutory language in Title III of the ADA defining ’public accommodation’ is unambiguous and clear,” the majority opinion said. “It describes twelve types of locations that are public accommodations.
“All of these listed types of locations are tangible, physical places. No intangible places or spaces, such as websites, are listed. … Absent congressional action that broadens the definition of ‘places of public accommodation’ to include websites, we cannot extend ADA liability to the facts presented to us here.”
The appellate panel vacated the lower court ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The dissenting opinion stated that Winn-Dixie’s visually impaired customers “were treated differently than its sighted customers and denied the full and equal enjoyment of services, privileges, and advantages offered by Winn-Dixie Stores.
“I would hold that this inferior treatment amounted to disability discrimination.”
An attorney for Mr. Gil, David Ferleger, of the Law Office of David Ferleger in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, said in a statement that the decision conflicts with other federal appeals court rulings. The lower court ruling was the first in the country to follow a trial on the ADA website accessibility issue.
“This is a sad but temporary loss for the civil rights of people with disabilities,” the statement said. “The 11th Circuit’s landmark decision effectively closes the internet’s doors to the blind. The blind have lost the ADA. We presently expect to seek United States Supreme Court review of this decision and will make a final decision soon.”
Winn-Dixie’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
More courts are ruling against companies over the issue of website accessibility, while the number of lawsuits filed against them continues to grow dramatically.
A U.S. District Court ruling that holds a supermarket chain must make its website more accessible to the visually impaired is encouraging litigation against other firms, experts say.