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Consumer Trends

‘Tidal wave’ of lawsuits target restaurant gift cards

Blind consumers say the cards are discriminatory because Braille versions aren’t available.
gift card
Photograph: Shutterstock

Dozens of restaurant and retail chains have been sued during the past month for allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to offer Braille-imprinted gift cards.

The suits, known as cut-and-paste filings because they’re virtually identical, are expected to increase as the year-end holidays approach and more law firms take up the cause for blind and sight-impaired clients. To date, nearly all of the actions have been filed in the New York City area, and almost exclusively by three law offices, according to several firms with hospitality practices.

Each action also seeks redress under New York state and New York City anti-discrimination laws. 

The lawsuits seek a change in the policies of each defendant rather than financial remuneration. Specifically, they ask that the gift cards be imprinted in Braille with the name of the issuing establishment and the amount of money that is preloaded. The actions also request that the Braille cards be differentiated in texture or size so that a blind person can distinguish them from the other cards in a wallet.

“All of these complaints are nearly identical—23 pages long and only differing in the identity of the defendant,” notes a recent communication to clients from the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth. 

The actions contend that the defendants are failing to provide reasonable accommodation as required under the ADA. The 29-year-old law mandates that public businesses strive to provide disabled customers with the same access to public facilities and services that able-bodied consumers enjoy. 

They seek certification as a national class action for all blind and vision-impaired consumers, which they estimate at 8.1 million people.

Every suit notes that Starbucks is the only restaurant chain that offers a Braille card, according to Hunton. The coffee giant started offering that version year-round in 2013.

The law firm pegs the number of lawsuits at 116, all filed since Oct. 24. The plaintiffs range from Hooters to Krispy Kreme. It called the activity “a new tidal wave of accessibility litigation.”

The situation echoes the proliferation of ADA lawsuits in recent years over the accessibility of restaurant and retail websites, according to Fox Rothschild, a New York City firm with a large hospitality practice. Those actions contended that chains such as Domino’s were failing to meet their obligation under the ADA because their websites’ content couldn’t be converted into an audio form. 

In a communication to restaurants and bars belonging to the New York City Hospitality Alliance, Fox Rothschild said it had not heard of any earlier instances where restaurant chains were sued for not offering Braille versions of their gift cards. 

It warns that the implications for the business sector could be profound. “For example, if gift cards must be in Braille, as these plaintiffs allege, then what about product tags, labels or credit cards?” reads the communique. 

Hunton noted in its alert to clients that the legal situation is murky. For one thing, it says, restaurants don’t manufacture the cards. Rather, the cards are produced by a few suppliers. 

The firm also questioned the feasibility of requiring restaurants and retailers to print and honor what amounts to two versions of their gift card, each in a variety of denominations.

Fox Rothschild recommended that restaurants consider a changeover to electronic cards, or e-cards, essentially a code that entitles the bearer to a preloaded dollar amount. 

Gift cards are the most popular holiday gift option, according to the National Retail Federation. Three out of 5 consumers want to receive a gift card this holiday season, the association found in its most recent holiday-sales projection.

Purchases of the cards account for roughly a third (35%) of total holiday spending on gifts, and 76% of consumers will have at least one card or e-card on their shopping lists, according to Blackhawk Network, a company that sets up branded gift card programs for retailers. It projects that consumers who buy gift cards this year will spend an average of $213.49 each. 

Restaurant gift cards are the most popular form, according to Blackhawk. 

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