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As Del Taco and Other Public Establishments Have Learned Obstructions, Even Temporary Ones May Give Rise to ADA and Unruh Act Liabliity

In Madden vs. Del Taco, Patrick Madden claimed he fell from his wheelchair and was injured when he attempted to pass a concrete trash barrel on a ramp leading to an entrance to a Del Taco restaurant. The obstruction had forced him to navigate his wheelchair to enter the restaurant. Unfortunately, the walkway was too narrow with the addition of the trash barrel and Plaintiff’s wheelchair went off the curb. Madden fell over and out of the chair, injuring himself as a result. Del Taco moved for summary judgment and, in so doing, claimed that the trash barrel was merely a temporary obstruction which was moved to a wider portion of the ramp immediately following the incident. In addition, the store had another entrance which presented no obstructions. Based upon this showing, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Del Taco.

720320_accessible.jpg The Court of Appeal reversed. It found the presence of the trash container to be a prima facie violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which provides that no individual may be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations of any place of public accommodation. Such a violation was also a violation of the Unruh Act (Civil Code § 54) which guarantees individuals with disabilities to have the same right as the general public to the full and free use of public places.

The Court of Appeal observed the requirements of ADA extend beyond the initial construction or alterations of existing structures. Indeed, it imposes a duty to remove any barrier to access, where removal is readily achievable. The ADA does not make any distinction between temporary or permanent obstructions to access hence, the placement of a concrete trash barrel, even if temporary, is a prima facie violation of ADA and the Unruh Act where a disabled person is hindered in his or her access to the premises.

Failing to take simple preventative measures and properly training employees to keep a public establishment free of obstructions which might interfere with a person with disabilities can prove costly both in terms of litigation expense and damages. It can also result in of loss of goodwill brought about by negative publicity.

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