Old time Coca Cola vending machineEven after 25 years of regulation and litigation ADA obligations are still often uncertain. Does the ADA require that vending machines be accessible to the blind and if so what does that mean? It really isn’t clear at all.

In McGee v. Coca Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., 2015 WL 6620959 (E.D. La. 2015) the court held definitively that a Coca Cola vending machine is not, by itself, a place of public accommodation covered by the ADA. It noted, however, that the bus station in which the machine was located was a place of public accommodation and might well be obligated to provide accessible vending machines. The case was decided early, so there is no guidance as to what accessible means.

A case from 2014, New v. Lucky Brand Dungarees Stores, Inc., 51 F. Supp. 3d 1284 (S.D. Fla. 2014) might have helped answer the vending machine question because the point of sale device at issue presented some of the same problems with respect to blind customers. The Department of Justice even filed a Statement of Interest in the case. Unfortunately for those seeking clarity (though luckily enough for Lucky Brand Dungarees) the plaintiff chose to dismiss his complaint voluntarily before there was any resolution.

The 2010 ADA Standards don’t really say much about vending machines except that they are not subject to the detailed accessibility requirements that apply to automatic teller machines and fare machines. Regulations for point of sale devices have been in progress for five years now, so there isn’t any real likelihood that DOJ is going to clarify the situation there either.

Finally, and though it may horrify vending machine operators, I can suggest that while a machine is not a public accommodation, the operator of a machine might be. Most vending machines are operated by companies that place the machines, stock them, and split the profits with the owner of the location where they are installed. That fact that the operator is only renting a few square feet for the machine doesn’t necessarily mean the operator is not a public accommodation; after all, it is certainly an “establishment serving food or drink.”

Given the paucity of cases involving vending machines it seems fair to say that neither the operators of such machines nor the property owners where they are located face a large risk of litigation today. Tomorrow is another question. If a few plaintiff’s firms to decide that vending machine lawsuits are good business, or an advocacy group decides the issue is important enough to justify a lawsuit then the cases will start rolling in. The National Automated Merchandising Association (www.vending.org) is certainly aware of the issue: Its web page includes a link to a story of a blind student in New Zealand working to develop a vending machine accessible to the blind.  It isn’t too soon for manufacturers to look at developing accessible machines, nor for location owners to consider what, if anything, they can do to minimize the risk of litigation.