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California State high court upholds disability damages

June 12, 2009 / Source: SFGATE

June 12th, 2009 - The state Supreme Court took a broad view of California's disability law Thursday, saying businesses that don't accommodate impaired customers are subject to damages of at least $4,000 per violation even if they don't intend to discriminate.

The unanimous ruling in the case of a San Bernardino man, who couldn't get his wheelchair into the restroom at a fast-food restaurant, resolved a dispute over the state law that prohibits discrimination against the disabled: whether victims can seek a full range of damages for barriers that deny them equal access, regardless of the company's intent.

California law allows victims of disability discrimination to sue for damages, unlike federal law, which depends on government officials to seek compensation for victims. The state's Unruh Act, the subject of the ruling, provides damages of $4,000 for each violation or three times the amount of the victim's loss, whichever is greater.

Business groups have argued that the state law is subject to abuse by lawyers who sue multiple companies for minor violations that are cheaper to settle than to fight in court. They urged the court to interpret the law to require proof of intentional discrimination to qualify for maximum damages. They defined intentional discrimination, at a minimum, as deliberate indifference to the plight of disabled customers.

After Thursday's ruling, "there will be a flood of (disability) lawsuits," predicted Lisa Wegner, lawyer for the Del Taco chain, owner of the restaurant in the San Bernardino case. "A lot of businesses big and small, as well as property owners and landlords, are going to feel the pinch."

Nonsense, said Russell Handy, lawyer for plaintiff Kenneth Munson. Noting that a separate state disability law allowed damages of $1,000 per violation without proof of intentional discrimination, Handy said the prospect of an additional $3,000 won't attract a flock of attorneys with meritless claims.

"There's already mechanisms in place to screen out frivolous lawsuits," he said.

Munson sued Del Taco in 2005, saying the restroom door was too narrow for his wheelchair and a slope in front of the building entrance required him to hang onto the front door to keep from rolling backward.

The company later spent $66,000 to fix the problems, and agreed to pay $12,000 in damages if Munson could prove a violation of the disability law. A federal appeals court referred the case to the state Supreme Court to interpret the law.

In Thursday's ruling, Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar cited a 1992 state law that extended the coverage of the Unruh Act to any business conduct that also violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Because the federal law isn't limited to intentional bias, but covers "the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation and communication barriers," the same standard applies to the California law, Werdegar said.

The case is Munson vs. Del Taco, S162818. The ruling can be viewed at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S162818.PDF.

For more information: State high court upholds disability damages