Technological advancements breed accessibility hurdles. Not long ago, we posted a blog addressing the plethora of lawsuits emerging over internet accessibility, and now we delve into recent activity in “places of public accommodation.”
Earlier this year, a class action lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court in the Southern District of California over sidewalk accessibility. Plaintiffs are a group of individuals, with varying disabilities, seeking class action status for the benefit of the thousands of disabled individuals living in or frequently visiting the San Diego area. What has prompted this suit? E-scooters.
In recent years, electronic scooters have become widespread in areas across the country. Companies offer scooters to the public for rent for use in popular areas within their cities. Pretty much anyone with a credit card and a smart phone can rent an e-scooter through the company’s app and ride freely through the city. With “dockless” rentals, renters can conveniently leave their e-scooter wherever they decide they are finished with their ride – no need to find a scooter station to return their device.
Convenience Creating Inconvenience
Unfortunately, this convenience for scooterists is creating a huge hazard for individuals with disabilities. E-scooters are being left on sidewalks, blocking pathways and storefronts. Many e-scooters lay flat on the walkways creating a maze of scooter graveyards. Those with disabilities are finding new and unexpected hurdles on their once-safe routes. Citizens of all abilities are finding themselves traversing unanticipated obstacle courses on their typical daily journeys.
Visually impaired individuals rely upon the consistency of their chosen routes – they remember that the low hanging tree is about 20 steps beyond this particular intersection; the second building on this street has steps that spill into the sidewalk; there is a mailbox and a newsstand on this corner; etc. But when their environment is in a constant state of change – by the presence of random new obstacles – their ability to travel from one place to another is significantly hindered.
To make matters worse, e-scooter riders are using the public sidewalks as their own personal streets – speeding by walkers with little regard for the other people around them. Plaintiffs in the case describe occasions where scooterists have nearly or actually struck them. One plaintiff, a triple amputee donning prosthetics, shares stories of having to dodge scooterists whizzing by him on pedestrian walkways – a feat quite difficult under the circumstances.
Further, these scooters are electric – meaning they are very quiet – and provide little warning when approaching. Visually impaired pedestrians are especially vulnerable to the hazard of unexpectedly encountering a silent vehicle speeding towards them. Imagine the sensation of accidentally walking onto a busy street blindfolded.
Most states do not have laws against, limiting, or regulating the use of this mechanical mode of transportation. Some states have even neglected to address the regulation of the use of bicycles, let alone e-scooters, on sidewalks. Some municipalities within these silent states have resorted to initiating their own regulations on mode-of-transportation use on sidewalks.
California bicycle laws fall under the vehicle code. A 1976 law prohibits bicyclists from parking bicycles in any fashion but upright on any sidewalk, but does not prohibit their use on sidewalks generally – that regulation is a local interest. Fast forward to September of 2018: California legislators passed a law restricting the use of electronic scooters upon sidewalks. This law became effective eight days before this suit was filed.
Because of the scattered nature of e-scooter prohibitions and regulations on use, e-scooter companies seek out venues silent on regulations for their operations. One e-scooter provider named in the suit admittedly selects their venues based on the absence of such regulations.
Plaintiffs in this suit focus on the carelessness of e-scooterists, the companies providing them, and the cities in which they are used. Defendants have arguably failed to maintain safe walkways for pedestrians, disabled or not. The problem lies primarily in the haphazard way in which e-scooters are being disregarded after use. E-scooters strewn about the sidewalks prevent all sidewalk users from realizing meaningful access to the resource.
The companies involved in the suit employ maintenance people for e-scooter upkeep, but not employees that clean up the sidewalks after users disregard them. The presence of these large and cumbersome vehicles prevents disabled pedestrians from use of their only safe means of foot travel. It is incredibly stressful for individuals with disabilities to be on the constant lookout for vehicles and unexpected obstacles present on what is supposed to be an accessible means of travel.
Defendant e-scooter companies might argue that the absence of laws regulating e-scooter traffic on sidewalks shields them from liability for the inconvenience. However, the careless nature of the operation of the vehicles and the way in which the devices are permitted to be disregarded unsystematically lends itself toward liability.
Some states have attacked the problem head on and have established regulations on use of transportation devices on sidewalks. Despite California’s recent efforts, the damage to its community has already been done. It would be prudent for other silent states to join in and begin regulating the unsafe conditions resulting from this new recreational activity, or else lie in wait for their own class action defense. E-scooter companies would also be wise to develop greater safety measures to mitigate the effects their entertaining ambulatory devices create on the communities they serve.
The greatest hurdle and the finest solution to the issues presented in this suit is spreading understanding of the nature and presence of individuals with disabilities in the communities in which these devices are used. Not all of the disability community is easily identifiable – some significant disabilities are hidden to the regular viewer. E-scooterists, and humankind generally, are sometimes ignorant to the possibility of encountering people of differing abilities. Educating e-scooterists, by the companies providing the services, that safety and awareness of the presence of individuals with disabilities upon their potential routes is a critical responsibility for e-scooter use. This simple effort may mitigate many of the inconveniences and hazards complained of in this suit and allow e-scooterists and pedestrians to co-exist harmoniously.