Dozens of Northern California wineries face website accessibility lawsuits
North Coast wineries are part of a growing wave of lawsuits nationwide alleging that company websites aren’t compliant with federal and state laws requiring equal access to those with disabilities.
Cases naming wineries as defendants have more than doubled in the past five years in California alone, with at least one lawyer saying he expects them to spread to other types of businesses. Vintners and other businesses face thousands of dollars in penalties plus legal costs if they lose in court.
And these legal actions come as North Coast vintners have leaned heavily on e-commerce and digital marketing in the coronavirus pandemic to make up for the unprecedented hit to a key source of revenue — tasting room visits — from public health restrictions on physical access to their properties.
In recent months, several dozen complaints have been filed just in federal courts against mostly wine producers in Napa, Sonoma and surrounding counties, according to court records, industry groups and accessibility advocacy organizations.
Virtually all of them have been filed by the Center for Disability Access, a division of San Diego-based civil rights law firm Potter Handy LLP. Each of those is on behalf of one plaintiff, Andres Gomez.
Court documents describe Gomez as legally blind man who uses screen-reader software, which is designed to audibly describe what’s displayed on the screen and guide the visitor in navigating the site and inputting information.
Potter Handy attorneys involved with the cases didn’t respond to Business Journal inquiries. A number of defendant wineries in the lawsuits were contacted for this story, but they either didn’t respond or had no comment.
Just in Napa County alone, nearly four dozen federal lawsuits have been filed in the past six months against wine-related businesses, and Gomez is the plaintiff according to Michelle Novi, industry relations and regulatory affairs director for Napa Valley Vintners.
After cases started to be filed against upper New York state wineries in 2018, San Francisco-based industry advocacy group Wine Institute and trade groups Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma County Vintners alerted their members about the risk of such legal actions and provided some tips that could start them down the road toward solutions.
“We’ve urged our members to review the accessibility status and make changes,” Novi said.
The last circular to its 550 members went out in December, just after a wave of California filings in November. The Napa group plans to hold a webinar for its members soon on compliance strategies.
But the challenge for vintners has been to rapidly upgrade their online presence during the pandemic to reach existing and new customers, according to Michael Haney, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners.
“One thing the pandemic did is force wineries to get into the digital age, and we saw wineries do that brilliantly,” he said. “There are best practices to make sure websites are accessible and open to all. We want all consumers to get to the website.”
Typical of the approach by plaintiffs in these lawsuits are the allegations against Brown Estate Vineyards LLC in Napa County, filed Dec. 8.
The complaint said Gomez visited the winery’s website in March and August 2021 “with the intent to purchase wine, or do some wine tasting, or potentially experience making their own wine” but “encountered numerous accessibility design faults that prevented him from navigating the site successfully” using screen-reader software.
Those impediments, according to the document, included lack of text descriptions for images, too low of contrast between background and foreground elements, lack of keyboard accessibility and a user interface that doesn’t have built-in instructions for assistive devices.
Brown Estate Vineyard settled the case on Jan. 13, but terms weren’t disclosed.
Quick settlement of these cases is common, according to Arif Virji, an attorney with Carle Mackie Power & Ross in Santa Rosa. He represents about a dozen wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties in these cases. He said California — and Wine Country, in particular — has become a “hotbed” for these cases.
“The lawsuits are currently focused on wineries, but we expect that all Northern California businesses will be targets sometime in the next six months,” Virji said.