Commentary: Protect small businesses from bogus ADA lawsuits

Ashleigh Conaway

I’ve helped run a small watersports equipment rental, lessons and tours shop in San Diego for several years, and while it has mostly been a positive experience, the recent string of ADA lawsuit abuse plaguing our state has made it significantly more challenging to operate. 

These lawsuits, which are often filed by unscrupulous attorneys looking to make a quick buck, exploit loopholes in the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) to force businesses into paying ridiculous settlements — in some ways as a type of extortion. 

Commentary logoThat’s why I’m urging lawmakers to pass reforms protecting small businesses like mine from these abusive lawsuits. 

Many loopholes have become popular targets by those who hope to make a quick buck off the honest labor of small businesses like mine. They will file a complaint with the business owner, alleging that they were denied access because of some barrier — a door that’s too heavy, a ramp that’s too steep, etc. — and demand thousands of dollars to settle the matter. 

In many cases, these complaints are entirely frivolous; however, most businesses choose to pay up because of the burden and expense of litigating them. 

Another problem with these lawsuits is that they disproportionately impact small businesses. That’s because the cost of compliance — installing a new door or building a new ramp — is often less than the cost of paying the scammer. For a large corporation with deep pockets, paying an attorney to fight these frivolous lawsuits may make financial sense; but for a small mom-and-pop business like mine, even one bogus lawsuit can spell disaster. 

So, what needs to be done?

Lawmakers could do a few things to help protect small businesses. Capping attorney fees for ADA compliance matters would lower the incentive for fraud, as would requiring plaintiffs to give written notice of any accessibility issues before filing a lawsuit. This would allow businesses to correct any problems without incurring unfair legal costs. 

While reforms can be debated, one thing that can’t is that bogus ADA lawsuits are becoming increasingly common and taking a heavy toll on California’s small businesses. I urge lawmakers to pass reforms that will protect us from these abusive lawsuits and help level the playing field so we can continue serving our community without fear of being put out of business by unscrupulous attorneys.

Ashleigh Conaway is the director of operations for Aqua Adventures in San Diego. This commentary first appeared in the Times of San Diego.

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