Winn-Dixie Decision in Florida Sets Landmark Precedent in Digital Accessibility
For the first time ever, a court has ruled that failure to make a website accessible violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In a landmark decision, Judge Robert Scola Jr. of the Southern District of Florida ruled that grocery chain Winn-Dixie’s website violated Title III and ordered to make its website WCAG 2.0 compliant.
The case, Gil v. Winn Dixie Stores, Inc., centered on the inability of the plaintiff, Juan Carlos Gil, to access Winn-Dixie’s website. Gil is legally blind and has cerebral palsy, and accesses the internet through the use of screen reader software.
The focus of the case was on the question of whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a place of public accommodation covered by the ADA. Appellate courts are split on whether websites are directly covered, or if they must have some sort of nexus to a physical location. Courts in the 11th Circuit, which includes Florida, had previously held that websites unconnected to physical locations are not covered by the ADA.
The court ruled, however, that the website had a nexus to Winn-Dixie’s physical stores because it offers a variety of services, including the ability to search for physical Winn-Dixie store locations, get store coupons, refill prescriptions, learn about Winn-Dixie brand items, and receive information about product recalls.
“The Court need not decide whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a public accommodation in and of itself, because the factual findings demonstrated that the website is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations. Although Winn-Dixie argues that Gil has not been denied access to Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations as a result of the inaccessibility of the website, the ADA does not merely require physical access to a place of public accommodation. Rather, the ADA requires that disabled individuals be provided ‘full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.’”
While a number of prior cases have been brought under the ADA to challenge the accessibility of websites, this is the first to go to trial. Earlier cases have been settled or dropped prior to trial. Although judges in a few prior cases have issued rulings on pretrial motions, it was not clear until now how a court would treat digital accessibility at trial and what standards it would look to.
Here, the court used WCAG 2.0 standards to evaluate Winn-Dixie’s website, and built those standards into its court order. According to Judge Scola’s order,
“Remediation measures in conformity with the WCAG 2.0 Guidelines will provide Gil and other visually impaired consumers the ability to access Winn-Dixie’s website and permit full and equal enjoyment of the services, privileges, advantages, and accommodations provided through Winn-Dixie’s website.”
WCAG 2.0 standards are not currently integrated into the ADA. By endorsing those standards, Judge Scola clarified what is required under the ADA and helped set a goalpost for organizations that want to comply with the law’s requirements. Although some questions remain – the decision did not distinguish between the WCAG 2.0 A and AA success criteria, for instance – this will help organizations know where to start to make their sites accessible.
Another interesting takeaway from the case is how easily litigation could have been avoided if Winn-Dixie had been proactive in considering accessibility when building its website. A representative from Winn-Dixie testified that the current website was created in 2015 and substantially overhauled in early 2017 at a combined cost of $9 million, but there was no discussion at either time of making the it accessible to people with disabilities. Meanwhile, the cost of making the website accessible was estimated to be somewhere between $37,000 and $250,000, a figure Judge Scola wrote “pales in comparison” to what Winn-Dixie spent to develop the site. By spending slightly more upfront, Winn-Dixie could have avoided the cost and embarrassment of litigation.