Are hand-controlled vehicles required to be on hand for test drives?

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On April 9, 2015, a federal district court held in Karczewski v. DCH Mission Valley LLC that auto dealerships are not required to install hand controls in vehicles they offer for sale in their inventory to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This was the most recent in a series of victories of this type for auto dealers in California faced with these types of lawsuits.

How it started

It began with access issues. Over the past couple of decades, auto dealerships and other public accommodation businesses have been swept up in the wave of disability access claims asserted under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) on behalf of disabled individuals who encountered access issues when visiting the business sites. The ADA sets forth specific requirements for businesses open to the public to remove physical barriers and provide disabled persons access to the goods, services, facilities, privileges and/or advantages of what the business has to offer. Some of the attorneys representing those disabled patrons became notorious for the prolific demands they generated against groups of businesses that sometimes covered entire city blocks or neighborhoods. Those cases primarily focused on facility access issues for individuals in wheelchairs, such as doorway width, ramps, parking, accessibility of restrooms, etc. Many businesses have resolved these claims by paying monetary settlements and agreeing to facility modifications in compliance with the ADA.

How it morphed

More recently, however, vehicle dealerships have been hit with an additional type of purported “access” claim—that is, the claim that the dealership is obligated to provide a specially equipped vehicle with hand controls for disabled persons to operate in a test drive situation. In these cases, the patron, who is mobility impaired in the lower extremities and cannot operate the standard foot controls on vehicles, visits the dealership and requests to test drive a vehicle that has been outfitted with special hand control equipment. Because the dealership (like the vast majority of dealerships) does not have such a vehicle available for test drive, they are not able to fulfill the customer’s request. The dealership is then hit with legal claims that the ADA requires dealerships to install hand controls to permit disabled customers to test drive its vehicles.

What some lower courts are doing about it

In one of these cases, Karczewski v. DCH Mission Valley LLC, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California found that, although the Regulations to the ADA do mention installing vehicle hand controls as an example of methods to remove barriers to facilities (28 C.F.R. Section 36.304(b)(21)), such Regulations go on to specifically state that they “[do] not require a public accommodation to alter its inventory to include accessible or special goods that are designed for, or facilitate use by, individuals with disabilities.” 29 C.F.R. Section 36.307(a). Because in this situation, the dealership’s vehicles are its inventory rather than architectural barriers in the structure of its public accommodations, the Regulations expressly relieve the dealership of such an obligation. Moreover, the ADA Regulations further clarify that a business is not obligated to alter the goods that it provides in the normal course of business under the ADA, and provides the example that a bookstore is not obligated to stock braille or large print books for customers with disabilities if it does not ordinarily do so as part of its business. As such, because the dealership is not obligated to alter its goods or inventory under the ADA, and there is no architectural or structural barrier at issue, the Court dismissed the claim against the dealership. This same District Court recently came to the same finding in a few previous lawsuits brought for the same type of claims.

Best practices and the uncertain future

Although these Court rulings create a favorable track record for auto dealerships on this issue in the Southern District of California, they are not binding precedent and have not yet been fully challenged on appeal. In light of the clear language of the ADA Regulations and the Court’s willingness to follow the Regulations, dealerships generally need not make any plans to start equipping their inventory with special hand control equipment for the purpose of test drives. It is noteworthy, however, that the same Plaintiff in the Karczewski case cited above, instituted five lawsuits against vehicle dealerships for the same claims in a two week period. As such, it is apparent that dealerships have been systematically targeted and dealerships should remain aware of the issue. It is important that if a dealership does receive a claim based on this issue, that it promptly obtain the advice of competent legal counsel.