Disney (Finally) Resolves Visual Impairment Class Action

| February 11, 2013 | 4 Replies

Perhaps only Disney could settle a class action lawsuit, have no class members object to the settlement, but have the settlement approval process take over nine months.  I’ve previously written about the class action lawsuit by visually impaired guests in a July 2011 post (after the judge certified it as a class action).  I wrote again, in April 2012, when the parties (including Disney, of course) asked the court to approve a settlement. But finally, in January 2013, the court approved the class settlement and dismissed the lawsuit.

The settlement requires Disney to make some changes (described in the April 2012 post) to the Theme Parks.  As this recent photo confirms, Disney began making some of the changes even before the court formally approved it.

Stationary Braille Map at Disney's Hollywood Studios (Photograph by Mike Holland)

Stationary Braille Map at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Photograph by Mike Holland)

So why did approval take so long?  Before a court approves a class settlement, it must give interested persons a chance to object.  No class members objected but the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) did (as an association, NFB would not be a class member even though many of its members would be).  NFB argued that the settlement terms were unfair because prohibited all future disability discrimination claims by visually impaired guests.

At an August 2012 hearing, the judge agreed with NFB on this point. But instead of rejecting the settlement, the judge told Disney and the plaintiffs to negotiate over changing the settlement terms to address the concerns.

At that point, something strange happened.  Instead of working out a way to resolve NFB’s concerns, the plaintiffs decided to pull out of the settlement (or, at least, they tried to pull out).  Disney, meanwhile, added two sentences to the 32 page settlement agreement and then asked the court, at an October hearing, to approve the settlement as modified even without agreement from the plaintiffs.  The judge again sent the parties back to the table.  Not long afterwards, Disney accused plaintiffs’ counsel of holding the settlement hostage in exchange for a “significant enhancement” in their fee.

Despite the NFB’s continued objections, the plaintiffs came around and, in late January 2013, the Judge approved the class settlement (with the two sentences added by Disney).  (Again, the April 2012 post outlined the main terms of the settlement so I won’t repeat them here).   The additional sentences create an exception that permits individuals to sue Disney for actual damages should Disney discriminate against a visually impaired guest in the future.  The settlement bars any future class actions alleging Disney discriminated against the visually impaired.  Future lawsuits seeking “statutory damages” (damages authorized by statute without requiring proof of harm) are barred.  (California law, for example, permits a plaintiff to recover a $4,000 in statutory damages. Florida law does not authorize any statutory damages for disability claims.)

While the change satisfied the federal judge and Disney, NFB still thinks the settlement should not have barred future statutory damages claims.  NFB’s objections go to the heart of the reason Disney agreed to settle the claims.  The settlement terms require Disney to make changes to its website and Theme Parks to help the visually impaired.  Disney doesn’t want to settle, make these changes, and have a steady stream of professional litigants repeatedly file lawsuits seeking statutory damages alleging the changes don’t satisfy federal or state law.  In contrast, Disney appears to be willing to take the chance that individual damages suits are not very likely to occur and, even if one is filed, that the lawsuit would be unlikely to upset the changes mandated by the settlement.

Details on Stationary Braille Map at Disney's Hollywood Studios (Photograph by Mike Holland)

Details on Stationary Braille Map at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Photograph by Mike Holland)

Before and during the lawsuit, Disney had been modifying its Theme Parks to better accommodate the visually impaired.  In June 2010, Disney introduced an Assistive Technology Device and in 2012 installed a stationary Braille map in Disneyland and, as shown above, at Hollywood Studios.  (In fact, Disney’s website states it has installed stationary braille signs in all four of the Walt Disney World Theme Parks and Downtown Disney.)  And in November 2012, Disney issued substantially revised guidebooks for guests with disabilities at all four Florida Theme Parks (links: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) .

It is no surprise that Disney pushed the court to approve the settlement.  Disney is a publicity magnet.  Litigation against Disney makes news when the same litigation against other companies doesn’t.  I suspect that explains why this settlement drew objections from groups that could not be class members.   It might also explain why the settlement agreement prohibited either party from issuing any press releases about the settlement.

Readers may see the amount Disney agreed to pay class counsel ($1,403,500 plus reimbursement of costs in amount of $146,500) and wonder it if is worth the cost.  No doubt, this is a lot of money, but the settlement precludes future class action lawsuits against Disney which allege Disney discriminates against the visually impaired as a class.  In today’s litigious climate, that peace is worth a good bit.

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Category: Disney World, Disneyland, News

  • SueM in MN

    In Florida, the Braille maps at Downtown Disney and all of the theme parks have actually been there for quite a few years.
    I don’t know exactly when they were installed, but the locations at each park were specifically pointed out in the first version of Passporter’s Open Mouse book, which was published in 2005. At that point, each park had at least 2 Braille signs, one by Guest Services and at least one other location.
    I know they were mentioned in WDW official printed Guides for Guests with Disabilities prior to 2005.

  • Arch Stanton

    I am a 100% Disabled Veteran with proof from the Veterans Administration.
    Disney could have easily done what their new program does and still gave the same benefits as their GAC program.

    Show ID or doctors note, Taken Biometric and then enjoy the park. Instead we now have lawsuits and twice as much walking trying to accomplish the same thing.

    I refuse to step foot on Disney Property because I have the inability to stand in long lines or make an appointment, walk off then come back an hour later. I might as well just sit at a table and wait.

    Somehow Disney believes that those with disabilities have magical powers when the reality is trying to enjoy their park with said disabilities is more of a harassment or hassle that is already on top of their overpriced admission and expensive commercialism.

    I took my kids there several times so we’ve been there and done that.

    I don’t want to be too preachy but my injuries are do to the service of my country which by proxy is also to every American including Disney. Yet, they would rather play politics than what’s right.

    I have better things to do with $100 a day than pay for the right to suffer through long lines and wait times. Multiply that by a family of 5 and we are talking serious cabbage that Disney will no longer get.

    • map0814

      First, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your service and your sacrifice for me and our Country! I still try very hard to believe in America, but it gets harder every day. I am scared to death of what kind of world our grandchildren will live in. And I am brought to tears when I realize that they will never know the wonderful Country I once lived in.
      My husband is also disabled, he was a Psychiatric RN for 30+ years and being in this profession entails spending lots and lots of time on your feet and getting beat up lots and lots. As the Director (he was not like most of his fellow Directors that wore a scarf and a broach & totally forgot what it was like to actually do patient care) my husband worked patient care with his staff every day plus he could never stand by and let his staff get pummeled and not join in and help. The “security” was a total joke and worthless at his hospital.
      We agree with your description of treatment at Disney, one thing is for sure, WDW is NOT run by Walt Disney anymore and he is probably “rolling over in his grave” at how “his guests” are treated! It is now ALL ABOUT, being politically correct, being welcoming to the Gay and Lesbians, and most of all “making money”, they care NOTHING about people only about money! They really do not care if they do not get your money, they have tons and tons of people from all over the world waiting in line to spend their money at WDW! They just do NOT CARE about you, me or anyone else!

  • kathy streeter

    I just visited Disney in March and it was an extremely terrible experience. I have RP, so my vision is very limited. I brought my cane, but was still treated terribly by the majority of the park employees. They do not work with anyone on an individual basis. No matter what your disability, they still treat you the same. One cast member actually told me, they decide how much they “want to help on whether they feel I am disabled or not”. I came home with bumps, bruises, et cetera. The hotel even charged me extra for a room close the lobby and well lit. They did eventually refund this when I got home and called and sited the ADA laws to them. I have enjoyed Disney since I was a small child, only a few years after they opened. I will never go again. It was a terrible experience and still haunts me. Shame on Disney for treating anyone that way. To watch employees laugh at me was too much. Instead of looking back with fond memories, I look back and shiver.