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One man, 18 months, 124 ADA lawsuits over websites

June 14, 2019 06:14 PM

GENEVA, N.Y. (WHEC) -- On Monday, one of the most exclusive wineries in the Finger Lakes got sued because of its website.

The person suing Belhurst Estate Winery in Geneva is also suing 124 other places, and it's all because of their websites. 

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The plaintiff's name is Thomas Olsen. He is blind and lives in Brooklyn. 

The lawsuit says the winery's website isn't set up to let Olsen use his technology and read the website and therefore it stops him "from visiting defendants' hotel."

News10NBC found out the plaintiffs and their lawyers target one industry after another. 

It started with suing art galleries because their websites violated the terms of the Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Then colleges and universities got hit. Nazareth College, RIT and almost 50 other schools got sued. 

And now, it looks like the next target is the restaurant industry. 

"First it asks me if I'm 21 or older," said John Urlaub, owner of Rohrbach Brewery. 

He says when he heard about this trend of suing over websites last year, he contacted his web provider. 

John Urlaub, Rohrbach Brewery owner: "We went to them right away and said, 'whatever it takes please get us in compliance.'"

Federal records show, since January of 2018, Mr. Olsen has filed 124 lawsuits just like this. 

His lawyers' firm have filed more than 400. 

Tom Stebbins, Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York: "And one thing we've seen is so many of these seem to be lawyer-driven. They're not driven necessarily to provide access. They're driven to get money for the lawyers."

Tom Stebbins directs the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. 

News10NBC Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "What kind of money are the lawyers and the plaintiffs making from these lawsuits?"

Stebbins: "Interestingly the plaintiffs are only making $500. But the lawyers are often times asking for twenty, twenty-five thousand dollars just in legal fees. And for many businesses, they make the rational, economic decision to settle the case because they think if they go to trial, if they pay their own lawyers, that it's going to exceed $10,000 anyway."

Stebbins says those financial numbers come from settlements. News10NBC investigated this issue for two months. In New York state, the number of ADA lawsuits jumped from 1,023 in 2017 to 2,338 in 2018. 

Urlaub, Rohrbach Brewery owner: "We try very hard to make sure we are in compliance so I'm not concerned from my standpoint. But just the fact that people could get sued very easily for things they may not know about unintentional. I don't think is very fair."

News10NBC emailed Thomas Olsen's lawyer and got a response Friday afternoon. 

Douglas Lipsky wrote, "The internet is where everyone goes to shop, learn about restaurants and book reservations at hotels. But the over eight million visually impaired individuals who live in the United States do not have the same access to the internet because some companies are failing to make their websites accessible to them, which violates federal and state law. My client is fighting to change that."

Belhurst Estate Winery did not comment because it's getting sued. 

Click here for our original story: News10NBC investigates: Lawyer says ADA lawsuits 'just a money grab'

Click here for our follow up story: News10NBC investigates an explosion of ADA lawsuits in New York

Credits

Berkeley Brean

Copyright 2019 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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