The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal by Domino's (NYSE:DPZ) to hear a case about whether a blind man's failure to be able to order a pizza from its website violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

While the decision means the case will now go to trial, it still has far-reaching implications for all businesses because it puts them on notice that not only must their physical locations be ADA compliant, but their websites and mobile apps must be accessible as well.

A gavel on a laptop keyboard

Image source: Getty Images.

Applying digital logic to analog law

The case was brought by Guillermo Robles, a blind man who said he couldn't order a customized pizza off Domino's website because its design lacked sufficient technology to allow his screen-reading software to work. He wanted Domino's to comply with Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, a set of standards for online and mobile content developed by technology and accessibility experts.

Before the case went to trial, Domino's sought to have the case thrown out, arguing the ADA did not apply to its website because it covered a "place of public accommodation." While most people understand that to mean a physical location, such as a restaurant, supermarket, or some other building, the courts have expanded on the concept.

In rejecting Domino's position, the court noted the ADA's language specified it applied to services offered of a public accommodation, not in a public accommodation, so its website and mobile app connected customers to the physical restaurants, meaning the ADA applied to them, too.

According to a 2006 case involving Target, the court held "To limit the ADA to discrimination in the provision of services occurring on the premises of a public accommodation would contradict the plain language of the statute."

Yet that "plain language" was written in 1990, only a year after the World Wide Web was invented, meaning no one even contemplated allowing a blind person to order a pizza over the internet. The lawsuit against Domino's will now go back to the trial court.

An impossible hill to climb

Because there are no uniform regulations regarding what accommodations are compliant, lawsuits like this are becoming commonplace. According to UsableNet, nearly 2,300 lawsuits related to ADA applicability to website access were filed in 2018, nearly triple the number the year before.

Domino's has been a leader in technology. The pizza chain issued a statement saying, "We take great pride in having already developed an accessible website and app, as well as many additional ways for all customers to connect with our brand and menu," including 24-hour hotlines for those using screen readers, using voice-activated devices like Alexa and Google Home, as well as its own voice-ordering digital assistant, Dom, that's available on the website and in its mobile app.

But as Domino's has also argued, it's increasingly difficult for business to comply with the law because how content is presented online is constantly changing. "Each defendant must figure out how to make every image on its website or app sufficiently accessible to the blind, how to render every video or audio file sufficiently available to the deaf, or how to provide content to those who cannot operate a computer or mobile phone."

Unlimited liability

This ruling creates uncertainty for businesses, as they will have to wait for the courts to clarify what technology is necessary to meet ADA accessibility standards. As a result, it is possible that innovation could be stifled as businesses make efforts to avoid exposing themselves to liability.  

As the law continues to be clarified in this area, expect continued lawsuits from enterprising plaintiffs' attorneys and heightened legal risk for businesses developing online ordering technology.