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Live from ICSC: California's ADA Conundrum

Neighborhood center owners in California are wrestling with an increasingly volatile issue-ADA compliance. According to several California developers, codes are constantly morphing, to the point that a center that is ADA compliant at groundbreaking is in violation of ADA codes by its grand opening. California's liberal tort laws leave developers vulnerable to serial ADA litigators, including some individual consumers who have made a career out of suing shopping centers, according to industry executives at ICSC's 2003 Spring Convention.

For example, a visually impaired customer is suing Donahue Schriber to try to get the firm to install Braille identification on storefronts in its centers. In a similar case, a quadriplegic consumer is suing San Diego-based GMS Realty over alleged ADA violations at one of its centers. GMS President Bill Gerrity said the plaintiff is known for having his parents scout out non-ADA-compliant shopping centers to sue.

While such lawsuits plague most shopping center owners throughout the United States, the environment has become increasingly frustrating in California, where federal and state guidelines are mismatched, says Tom Schriber, chairman of Costa Mesa, CA-based Donahue Schriber. Though the settlements in these cases are usually in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, plaintiffs are able to build a substantial windfall by lining up several suits against various properties and owners, Gerrity said.

Developers say that Northern California is more prone to such suits than Southern California, and legislation that could deter such litigation is pending at the state level. In most cases, owners are allowed a short window of time to correct reported ADA violations before they are held legally accountable. But some retrofits, such as re-striping parking lots, cannot be executed in time to avoid a lawsuit.

"There is no clearinghouse for ADA compliance," Schriber said. "What we need is ICSC to organize a lobbying effort to clarify the codes and push for a common code that can be exported to all states." Gerrity said that since ADA issues affect all commercial property types, ICSC would need support from other real estate lobbying groups to effectively push for any significant change to current codes. It's also hard to gain local government support for reforming ADA codes and tort laws, since most politicians are reluctant to seem insensitive toward their disabled constituents.

Related Resources
More from the ICSC 2003 Spring Convention
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