The case against suing

Disabled community defends ADA laws at lawsuit-abuse forum

State Sen. Jim Nielsen speaks with a member of the local disabled community prior to a public forum regarding “lawsuit abuse” on July 12 at the North Valley Property Owners Association office.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen speaks with a member of the local disabled community prior to a public forum regarding “lawsuit abuse” on July 12 at the North Valley Property Owners Association office.

Photo By Howard Hardee

“California loves litigation,” said Tom Scott, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA), to a full conference room in north Chico on July 12. “We had 1.2 million civil lawsuits in the state of California last year. Not all of them were frivolous, but there’s got to be a better way.”

In what at times became a contentious public forum, Scott and guest speakers U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) and state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) outlined how they believe “lawsuit abuse” is crippling California’s small businesses and suppressing economic growth at a meeting held at the North Valley Property Owners Association office on East Avenue.

The meeting was sponsored by CALA, self-described as a grassroots movement, though critics have linked the groups (there are dozens of CALAs across the nation) to large corporations, including insurance, oil, gas and tobacco industries as well as the controversial American Tort Reform Association.

In addressing the audience—made up of small-business owners, members of the disabled community, and local media—Scott described how trial lawyers have made a “cottage industry” of litigating businesses not in compliance with laws like the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and California’s Proposition 65.

The ADA requires business owners make building modifications to allow access for people with disabilities, remove barriers in existing facilities, and provide aids and services for people with hearing, vision or speech impairments. Prop. 65, meanwhile, requires businesses to post warning signs if chemicals deemed harmful by the state are on site.

LaMalfa stressed repeatedly that both the ADA and Prop. 65 fail to clearly define what is required of business owners, making them easy targets for lawyers who make a living from “drive-by” lawsuits motivated by profit and not intended to increase accessibility for disabled individuals.

“When Congress and the legislature makes vague laws, you open the playground for lawsuits,” he said. “All this does is slow the economic recovery. It means less jobs, [and] less money for police and fire protection, our roads, and our highways.”

An ADA-compliance lawsuit settlement typically costs a business owner $15,000 to $20,000, Scott said, while a Prop. 65 lawsuit settlement averages between $60,000 and $70,000. “Then you have to comply, which might make the [lawsuit] look like a tea party,” Scott said.

“Day after day in the legislature, provisions are inserted all the time to make us more litigious, to provide more opportunity for lawsuits,” Nielsen said.

The forum’s tone changed markedly when Scott opened the floor for public comment.

Members of the disabled community—including a strong showing from representatives of Independent Living Services of Northern California (ILSNC) —shifted the discussion to issues specifically regarding ADA compliance and business accessibility, though Scott made several attempts to steer focus back to the broader issue of legal reform.

One woman, accompanied by a guide dog and wearing an ILSNC T-shirt, spoke of disabled individuals being unfairly characterized as quick to take legal action when confronted with a business not complying with ADA guidelines.

“Just because we have disabilities doesn’t mean we want lawsuits or we’re out for money,” she said. “We just want what we need as far as accessibility—being able to reach things, being able to get into [businesses], and also being treated fairly.

“There’s a misconception that people with disabilities are out to get something, and I don’t believe that’s true.”

Longtime activist Karen Duncanwood of Paradise spoke on behalf of her disabled son, Brian, who was not in attendance. Duncanwood recalled how she and Brian marched from the White House to the Capitol building “to help get ADA passed” in 1990.

“Businesses have had 23 years to comply,” she said. “If businesses and public entities had put aside a little of their money over those 23 years, they would have had the access changes done a long time ago. We are in favor of compliance, not suing. If people comply, they won’t get sued.

“It’s not a vague law—it’s a complex law,” Duncanwood continued, addressing LaMalfa directly. “But think about it: How could it be anything else? The reality is that disabilities are complex, our local communities are complex.”

Though the forum had divisive moments, both sides agreed that ADA lawsuits in which the goal is simply quick money are deplorable. Over the phone after the meeting, Scott told the CN&R he was contacted by Forest Harlan, systems change coordinator for ILSNC, who proposed his agency work with CALA on solutions.

Scott said he believes the debate was successful in prompting a discussion of “legal reform and how lawsuit abuse affects job creation and our economy.

“If we’re going to get California back on track, legal reform is one area, among many, that should be seriously looked at.”