Drive-by lawsuits target parking lots for quick cash: Susan Shelley

Photo courtesy Federal Highway Administration/U.S. Department of Transportation
To enhance safety for people who are visually impaired, ADA accessibility guidelines require that truncated dome surfaces, like the one shown here, be installed on new curb ramps and any alterations to existing ramps.
Photo courtesy Federal Highway Administration/U.S. Department of Transportation To enhance safety for people who are visually impaired, ADA accessibility guidelines require that truncated dome surfaces, like the one shown here, be installed on new curb ramps and any alterations to existing ramps.

Suddenly, they appeared everywhere.

Outside the sliding glass doors of supermarkets. On the sidewalks next to crosswalks. At the entrances to office buildings and hotels.

What are those yellow plates on the ground with the ferocious bumpy surface that invites high heels to slip, trip, and win a date with an orthopedic surgeon?

They’re called truncated domes, and they’re intended to make it easier for vision-impaired individuals to detect a curb next to traffic.

Truncated domes are one of many accommodations required by federal and state regulations in order to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA is a law that can be enforced through private lawsuits against businesses. And like everything else, it’s a little tougher for businesses in California.

But it’s not just businesses that get sued. Governments get sued, too. In 2010, Caltrans agreed to pay $1.1 billion to settle a lawsuit over state-controlled sidewalks and other rights-of-way that were not fully accessible to people using wheelchairs or walkers.

Settlements like that get everybody’s attention, but there are settlements in ADA lawsuits all the time, most amounting to less than $10,000 — not enough to make the news, but a huge cost for small businesses that are often struggling to keep the doors open.

Can you guess the leading category for alleged violations? It’s parking lots.

If a parking lot is not compliant with regulations under a combination of state and federal laws, plaintiffs may be able to collect $4,000 in minimum damages.

And because parking lots can be viewed without even attempting to enter the place of business, some attorneys have raked in money by filing what have become known as “drive-by” lawsuits.

Sometimes even driving by isn’t necessary. Google Earth can see parking lots from space.

One reason parking lots are such a lucrative target for serial lawsuit-filers is that the federal ADA regulations were changed in 2010. Any repainting or remodeling after the new regulations were issued made the property owner or tenant — or both — liable for updating everything to the new standard of compliance.

It’s complicated. There’s more to it than simply having enough parking spaces marked off as reserved for the disabled.

Every parking lot must have a minimum of one van-accessible space. Parking lots with more than 25 spaces also need auto-accessible spaces, one for every 25 non-accessible spaces up to 100, and a designated proportion above that.

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Every accessible space must have an access aisle next to it, usually on the passenger side, five feet wide for auto-accessible spaces, eight feet wide for vans.

The striping, cross-hatching, symbols and signage have precise requirements. “No Parking” must be painted on the ground in the access aisle in 12-inch-high letters. The international symbol of accessibility — the outline of a white wheelchair on a blue background — must be painted on the ground where it is visible to traffic enforcement officers when a car or van is parked in the space.

The height of the signs is regulated. The wording is regulated. Even the language on the tow-away warning signs is regulated.

“There are some people trying to make a profit by selling signs with the wrong wording,” warned a state spokeswoman in a YouTube video produced by the California Department of Rehabilitation.

The DOR has put together a series of videos — you can find them on YouTube by searching for “Boost Your Business” — to help business owners figure out how to comply with the regulations. But don’t rely on it. “Remember,” the spokeswoman said, “these codes can change, so be sure to check the most recent requirements before you lay down those stripes.”

Why does California make everything sound like a bondage club?

Maybe only masochists own businesses in California.

There is some help available beyond the state’s Youtube channel. David LoPresti, a senior business development executive with Goodwill Southern California, launched a service to assist small businesses that might be targeted for drive-by lawsuits over parking lot issues. Business owners who’d like more information about Goodwill’s “Signs & Stripes Program” can reach LoPresti at 323-400-9122.

Business owners also may want to consider hiring a certified access specialist to inspect their entire property for accessibility compliance. Obtaining a CASp report (the “p” stands for “program”) may provide some protection from liability in some cases. More information and a list of certified access specialists are available on the website of the Division of the State Architect: www.dgs.ca.gov/dsa/Programs/programCert/casp.aspx.

Be careful out there.

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com.

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About the Author

Susan Shelley

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Reach her at Susan@SusanShelley.com and follow her on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley. Reach the author at Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow Susan on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.