The recent lawsuit was filed by a longtime patient of a Pennsylvania hospital on behalf of similarly situated individuals.

Disability discrimination lawsuits against hospitals have become relatively common in recent years as former hospital employees allege that their former employers discriminated against them on the basis of various disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Other ADA lawsuits have been filed against hospitals and other healthcare providers, claiming that their websites or parking lots do not adequately accommodate those with disabilities. Yet others have been filed accusing hospitals of failing to accommodate deaf patients by not providing a live interpreter. But few, if any, major lawsuits had been brought against hospitals and healthcare providers alleging that the facilities themselves fail to accommodate patients with physical disabilities. That may have changed with a putative class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in late July, which may be the first of many cases to come.

The recent lawsuit was filed by a longtime patient of a Pennsylvania hospital on behalf of similarly situated individuals. The named plaintiff, who has diplegic cerebral palsy, had been treated at the defendant hospital since birth. She sued the hospital for allegedly failing to “provide and ensure equal access for individuals who use wheelchairs or scooters,” in violation of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and applicable regulations. The lawsuit focuses on the hospital’s alleged failure to provide accessible examination tables, which can be adjusted in height so that patients can more easily transfer themselves from their wheelchair or scooter to the table. Because of the lack of such accessible exam tables, patients in wheelchairs and scooters must either be examined while seated or “undergo humiliating and often dangerous transfer procedures” to be placed on the table.

According to the lawsuit, the failure to provide accessible examination tables is “discriminatory, is a denial of full and equal access, results in unequal treatment of individuals with mobility disabilities, and is statutorily prohibited by the ADA and the Rehab Act.” The plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that, among other things, the defendant hospital’s failure to provide accessible examination tables violates federal law by failing to provide an accessible facility, failing to remove architectural barriers and preventing equal access to and enjoyment of services and facilities. The plaintiff has also requested a permanent injunction requiring the hospital to provide accessible exam tables. It is not clear from the plaintiff’s complaint whether she made any requests or attempts to encourage the hospital to obtain accessible examination tables prior to filing her lawsuit.

Hospitals and healthcare providers should track this lawsuit closely and be on the lookout for similar lawsuits in the months and years to come. While the costs of replacing a great deal of equipment could be significant for hospitals, so too are the costs of litigation. Hospitals should evaluate their facilities, policies and procedures to ensure that they are taking necessary and reasonable steps to provide equal care to all patients, regardless of physical disability.