The primary message was clear at Thursday’s workshop for businesses hoping to avoid disability access lawsuits: Get expert help.
Now. Before you’re sued.
Keynote speaker Kim Stone said business owners are known for being “can-do people who figure it out.” She said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a third of the Modesto seminar’s 250 attendees buying blue paint at a hardware store for quick, do-it-yourself, disabled parking spots – but that’s a bad idea, she said.
“Getting close is not good enough,” said Stone, Civil Justice Association of California president. “Slightly off is going to be a lawsuit.”
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Some in the crowd, including former Stanislaus County Supervisor Paul Caruso, already have been sued. They are among more than 50 businesses in Stanislaus and Merced counties faced with lawsuits and paying several thousands of dollars to fix problems, plus thousands more in payoffs to serial plaintiffs and their lawyers.
Targets range from downtown Modesto’s DoubleTree Hotel and car dealerships to restaurants and liquor stores. The latest was filed last week against three stores in a Los Banos shopping center; they include a Save Mart supermarket, whose parent company is headquartered in Modesto.
The plaintiffs behind local lawsuits include an Arizona pedophile who has sued California companies every year for the past 13 years, except when he was in prison. Between them, the four plaintiffs have slapped lawsuits on at least 820 companies up and down the state, all claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
“By no means am I anti-disabled,” said Stone, whose group lobbies for legislation ending frivolous lawsuits. “I am against parasitic lawyers (who engage in) nothing more than legalized extortion. They do it only for the money” and not necessarily to remove barriers to the disabled, she said.
Tom Scott, executive director of California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, said those showing up for the 7 a.m. seminar represent “one of the greatest turnouts I’ve seen” for such events. He urged people to raise awareness for legislative reform, which has proved elusive in this state.
The event, held at Brenden Theatres, was sponsored by the Stanislaus Business Alliance in cooperation with chambers of commerce throughout the county and several office holders.
“California has got to get over this love affair with lawsuits,” Scott said.
Until then, it’s best to become familiar with regulations – and adjust to them, said county Supervisor Bill O’Brien, a grocer.
“Businesses want to be compliant,” said George Sharp, 41, a Modesto native who became disabled at 13. “They’re doing their best.”
But Stone said she saw “bunches” of violations in Modesto just in her overnight stay, many having to do with improper signs in parking lots.
She suggested hiring a certified access specialist to pinpoint problems, even if it costs more than $1,000. It’s impossible for a business to avoid lawsuits by simply studying rules, because they change every so often and, under California law, are open to different interpretations, Stone said.
Four certified inspectors in the audience handed out business cards after the seminar.
Brad Peters also was busy passing around a petition urging changes in law to discourage predatory lawsuits. The Manteca activist and his supporter earlier had trouble finding places to park their wheelchairs in the theater because organizers had filled the space normally reserved for wheelchairs with tables supporting equipment for Thursday’s presentation.
Carol Ann Rangel, owner of downtown’s Helping Hands day spa, summed up the seminar in one word: “Overwhelming.” She questioned why local agencies that conduct fire and building inspections before issuing business licenses give no information on disability access rules.
“We employ eight people,” said massage therapist Henry Rangel. “If we get hit (with a lawsuit), eight people will be suffering.”