In what is believed to be the first court to hold a trial on the applicability of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to a retailer’s website, a federal court judge in Florida ruled that Winn-Dixie supermarkets can be liable under the federal statute for operating an inaccessible site.

Juan Carlos Gil, who is legally blind and has cerebral palsy, sued the grocery chain based on its failure to offer screen-reader software, leaving him unable to navigate its website. Winn-Dixie moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that the ADA applies only to physical locations.

After a nonjury trial, U.S. District Court Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. entered a verdict in favor of Gil. He found that the site was a “public accommodation” covered by the statute since it was integrated and connected with the physical store locations.

Courts are split on whether the public accommodation requirement applies solely to physical spaces, the court noted. However, even those that have concluded that places of public accommodation must be physical spaces have allowed claims under the statute where the goods and services provided by a public accommodation have “a sufficient nexus” to a physical place, the judge added. He therefore found the statute applicable where, as here, the website is “heavily integrated” with physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations.

“The Court need not decide whether Winn-Dixie’s website is a public accommodation in and of itself, because the factual findings demonstrate that the website is heavily integrated with Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations and operates as a gateway to the physical store locations,” Judge Scola wrote.

“Although Winn-Dixie argues that Gil has not been denied access to Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations as a result of the inaccessibility of the website, the ADA does not merely require physical access to a place of public accommodation. Rather, the ADA requires that disabled individuals be provided ‘full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.’”

Facts at trial demonstrated that the supermarket chain’s site failed to provide this “full and equal enjoyment,” the court said.

“The services offered on Winn-Dixie’s website, such as the online pharmacy management system, the ability to access digital coupons that link automatically to a customer’s rewards card, and the ability to find store locations, are undoubtedly services, privileges, advantages and accommodations offered by Winn-Dixie’s physical store locations,” the court wrote.

The court was not persuaded by the defendant’s argument that its website compliance was delayed in part due to the complications of interfacing with various third parties.

“[T]he fact that third party vendors operate certain parts of the Winn-Dixie website is not a legal impediment to Winn-Dixie’s obligation to make its website accessible to the disabled,” the court said. “First, many, if not most, of the third party vendors may already be accessible to the disabled and, if not, Winn-Dixie has a legal obligation to require them to be accessible if they choose to operate within the Winn-Dixie website.”

Concluding that Winn-Dixie violated the ADA, the court ordered the defendant to make its website accessible to individuals with disabilities who use computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. In addition, the company must adopt and implement a Web Accessibility Policy, provide mandatory training to all employees who write or develop programs or code for the site, and conduct tests of the website every three months to ensure compliance. The parties were instructed to agree on a compliance deadline.

In light of the court’s finding that Winn-Dixie had a “sincere and serious intent” to make its website accessible to all, the injunction will expire in three years.

To read the verdict and order in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: Courts across the country have struggled with whether the ADA applies to websites, although a growing number have found the statute applies where the site is sufficiently connected to brick-and-mortar locations, a position backed by the Department of Justice. One California judge dismissed a suit over concerns about due process, given the lack of guidance for online retailers on what is required by the ADA to achieve compliance. Winn-Dixie said it plans to appeal the verdict in the Gil case, which the parties indicated was the first to go to trial on the issue of whether a website violated the ADA.