The purpose of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is to prohibit discrimination and guarantee that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as others when it comes to employment and the purchase of goods and services. President George H.W. Bush signed the first version of the ADA into law about 30 years ago, and to this day it’s considered one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil-rights legislation.
This article will help you understand the nuances of this important act and how it can impact your self-storage operation. More important, you’ll learn to recognize ADA-related risk at your storage facility and avoid potential lawsuits.
Evolution and Monitoring
Though the ADA didn’t originally apply to self-storage, it certainly does now. Over the years, significant amendments have been made that affect our industry. Now, it’s critical to ensure your operation is properly accessible to all employees and tenants. There are several factors to contemplate, such as:
- New construction vs. older facilities
- Elevators vs. stairs
- Sidewalks and walkways
- Parking lots and open spaces
- Door weight
- Door closure/latch
- Service counters
Even your website may need to be compliant. The list of concerns is extensive, and ADA requirements extend to anyone who visits your business. While many of the protocols are easy to follow, it’s important to re-evaluate your property regularly. Aging of buildings and equipment can cause you to fall out of compliance, or the requirements may change over time.
From the perspective of a self-storage operator, part of the challenge in complying with the ADA is several parts of the act are ambiguous. When laws aren’t black and white, it can lead to uncertainty. Certain issues may be left for a judge or jury to interpret. How do you think a trial would go based on the following scenario?
Let’s say a self-storage owner has dozens of facilities in California. A tenant who requires a wheelchair decides to rent a regular unit because the handicapped unit isn’t large enough for his needs. Though he doesn’t suffer any type of injury from using the unit, he decides to speak to an attorney because he believes the facility isn’t ADA-compliant.
Though this incident may seem innocent and isolated, a lawsuit can wreak havoc on the business. Let’s say the facility in question isn’t compliant, so the investigation is then extended to all of the company’s other locations. Even if the owner remedied any shortcomings to meet all ADA requirements and recommendations, he’d still have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. In fact, during the time it takes to update each site, fines continue to accrue.
Operators in violation of the ADA can face hefty penalties of up to $75,000 for a first violation and $150,000 for subsequent infractions. Imagine the additional legal and financial impact if the disabled person was injured by a unit door that’s heavier than ADA recommendations.
This type of scenario could happen to anyone. It’s critical that you be proactive about retrofitting your self-storage facility to meet ADA standards. Remember, a disabled person doesn’t have to be injured to file a suit. Even parties who have never even rented a self-storage unit have brought class-action lawsuits against the industry, claiming they’re trying to stop discrimination.
It’s also important to note that ADA-compliance suits aren’t typically covered by business-liability insurance policies. However, there are employment-practices liability products that do offer coverage. To determine whether your self-storage operation is properly protected, ask your insurance agent the following:
- Does my employment-practices liability insurance cover ADA?
- What is the sublimit for ADA coverage?
- Is legal defense within or outside the limit?
- Does the policy cover third parties?
If you don’t have the right coverage, you could be faced with handling ADA-related lawsuits entirely out of your own pocket!
Help Is Out There
Fortunately, there are professionals who help self-storage owners address the issue of ADA compliance. Loss-control firms will visit sites and offer recommendations. Evaluations are performed by professional engineers who will:
- Interview principal contacts
- Verify jurisdictional requirements, which depend on property construction date, modification date, and local authorities or other governmental bodies that have dominion in the area
- Inspect the facility, including entrances, individual structures, offices, storage spaces, workspaces, restrooms and appurtenances (drinking fountains, public telephones, etc.)
- Interview property principals to ensure all uncertainties are clarified
- Provide an oral report, with findings related to ADA compliance and general safety, plus recommended corrective actions
- Issue a written report
Safety and compliance management should be an important issue for all self-storage operators. If you don’t feel you can interpret the ADA laws yourself, connect with a trained, professional team that can help you navigate these murky waters.
Jenny Bortman is vice president at Universal Insurance Programs, which has created and provided specialized insurance coverages to the self-storage industry for more than 20 years. For more information, call 602.222.8300; visit https://uiprograms.com.