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Lawsuit questions legality of drive-thru-only service

An ADA lawsuit alleges that Taco Bell is discriminating against the sight-impaired at night, when only the drive-thru might be open.
Photograph: Shutterstock

A newly filed federal lawsuit is challenging the common restaurant practice of limiting late-night service to the drive-thru. 

The action, filed last week against Taco Bell, alleges that only permitting sales through the drive-thru is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It argues that the policy discriminates against people who cannot drive because of sight impairments. 

“Taco Bell denies the visually impaired equal access to the goods and services that Taco Bell provides during ‘late-night’ operating times at thousands of their restaurants throughout the United States,” the complaint alleges

It seeks both injunctive relief—essentially, a discontinuation of drive-thru-only service or the chain’s no-pedestrians policy late at night—as well as unspecified punitive damages. It also demands that the trial be heard by a jury and seeks certification as a national class action. 

Taco Bell responded in a statement, "We take pride in being accessible to all our customers and therefore take these claims very seriously.  We believe this suit lacks merit and we  are prepared to defend our brand vigorously.“  

The Yum Brands-owned operation is not the only restaurant chain that discourages or prohibits pedestrians from using the drive-thru. The conventional wisdom holds that persons not in a car could be accidentally injured by the vehicles in the lane. Persons on bicycles, horses, scooters or other nonmotorized modes of transportation are also typically turned away. 

Access is not an issue when the counter and dining areas of the restaurants are open, because the sight impaired can order inside the establishments. 

Taco Bell restaurants typically close off access to their interiors at 10 p.m. while continuing to fill drive-thru orders until 1 or 2 a.m., according to the complaint.

The suit was filed Thursday in the San Francisco branch of the U.S. District Court for Northern California. 

The ADA is a landmark anti-discrimination measure that took effect in 1990. It aims to extend the rights and privileges enjoyed by most consumers to persons with disabilities, in part by requiring public businesses to make reasonable accommodations for physical impairments. 

Because “reasonable” is a subjective term, the law has generated a torrent of lawsuits, many aimed at restaurants. One of the new areas of dispute has been what adjustments a restaurant should make on its website to accommodate blind visitors. 

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