A recent case from Maryland, Bray v. Marriott Int’l, 2016 WL 319873, at *1 (D. Md. Jan. 27, 2016) serves as a reminder that violations of ADA accessibility standards may also serve as evidence of negligence in a personal injury case. When I last wrote about this subject in 2013 (click the following link to read my post Personal injury damages for ADA violations – it can happen.) the case law covered the spectrum from ADA violations being prima facie proof of negligence to ADA violations being no evidence at all of negligence. At the same time, it appears likely that compliance with the relevant ADA standard for physical accessibility cannot be considered negligence because the ADA preempts differing state law standards (click the following link to read my post Pool lifts and preemption of state tort claims.) Bray adds another jurisdiction to the list of those in which an ADA violation is evidence of negligence.
This is not an inevitable result. Since 2013 at least one other district court has found that violations of ADA accessibility standards are not evidence of negligence. See, Vansteenkiste v. Lakeside Mall, LLC, 2014 WL 2744172, at *10 (E.D. Mich. June 17, 2014), citing Southwell v. Summit View of Farragut, LLC, 494 F. App’x 508, 512 (6th Cir. 2012).
It is always useful to understand how different courts can reach the opposite result when dealing with the same law. One reason, in this case, is that although these are federal courts, they are applying the local state law of negligence. There also seems to be an underlying difference of opinion about what it means for the ADA to be used as a safety standard. Courts like Bray v. Marriot Int’l refer to the ADA as a safety statue for the disabled. Ordinarily a violation of a safety related law is at least evidence of negligence, so once the ADA is regarded as a safety statute the result is more or less inevitable. Courts that find ADA violations are irrelevant note that the purpose of the ADA was not to protect the disabled from physical harm, but to protect against discrimination.
Who’s right? The argument that the ADA is a safety statute doesn’t seem to have any real basis in the law or regulations. The only time the ADA mentions safety is to provide exceptions for the safety of non-disabled individuals. It never mentions the safety of disabled individuals. The commentary in connection with the 2010 Standards explicitly notes that the Standards will have a minimal impact on building egress and exits because existing safety codes include equivalent requirements. Other mentions of safety relate to the safe operation of equipment like platform lifts that are required for accessibility. It seems clear that the ADA Standards were not intended to either replace or improve on existing safety codes.
Finally, at a more fundamental level, this disagreement about the purpose of the ADA goes back to the basic distinction between a statute to prohibit discrimination, which tries to insure equality of access for all, and a statute to make life generally better for those with disabilities, even if that means an inequality that favors the disabled. Does it give everybody a fair shake, or is it charity? Individual courts will continue to answer this question according to their own views, but treating the ADA as a charity statute seems to undermine the equality the ADA was intended to create.