A Florida federal court has considered whether a business website is a place of public accommodation within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
Robert Gumson ("Gumson") is a blind individual who sought to use southwest.com ("Website"), a website operated by Southwest Airlines ("Airline"). The Airline, the nation's fourth largest in terms of domestic passenger volume, estimates that it sells airline tickets to nearly half of its passengers through the Website. The Website does not offer any features which make the site accessible to individuals who suffer from visual impairments, such as allowing visitors to use a screen reader. Visually-impaired individuals have great difficulty using the Internet because not only do many websites fail to use technology making it easier for these individuals to use their websites, there are also many conflicting technologies used by sites that are trying to be accessible, making it very difficult for the visually impaired to use the Internet.
Gumson and Access Now, Inc. ("Access Now") brought a lawsuit against the Airline for failing to make the Website accessible to visually-impaired individuals. Their lawsuit was based on the ADA, arguing that the Website was a place of public accommodation and therefore the Airline was required to make the Website accessible to individuals suffering from a disability. The Airline filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, dismissed the lawsuit filed by Gumson and Access Now. The court first looked at the ADA. The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against handicapped individuals. One method the ADA uses to eliminate handicap discrimination is to assure that handicapped individuals have equal access to services in public places, or "places of public accommodation." The ADA requires a place of public accommodation to be “readily accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.” The ADA lists a number of places that constitute places of public accommodation, such as sales offices, grocery stores, and restaurants. However, an Internet website is not included on this list.
The court found that since a website is not defined as a place of public accommodation within the ADA, the Website was not an ADA-place of public and accommodation and thus the Airline was not required to make the Website accessible to handicapped individuals. Although other courts have found business websites to be places of public accommodation and subject to the ADA, the court found that the 11th Circuit's (federal circuit within which this court is located) narrow reading of the ADA's definitions required the court to find that a business website is not a place of public accommodation. The court also based its reasoning on the fact that all of the places of public accommodation listed in the ADA are actual geographic locations (with, for example, real ticket counters), unlike a website and its "virtual" environment. The court stated that if Congress wanted to include websites within the meaning of the ADA, it needed to amend the definition of a place of public accommodation. Thus, the court dismissed the lawsuit brought by Gumson and Access Now.
Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines, Co., 227 F.Supp.2d 1312 (S.D. Fla. 2002).