Hotels.com sued over disabled access to rooms

A major online travel company is being sued because it does not allow disabled bookers to search for or book wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms. The Californian lawsuit seeks to force Hotels.com to change its behaviour but does not seek any damages.

The lawsuit is being taken in the California Supreme Court for Alameda County and claims that Hotels.com breaks the state's civil rights laws, its Disabled Persons Act and its Unfair Competition Law. The case does not rely on the nationwide Americans with Disabilities Act.

The suit claims that disabled-access rooms are treated by the site as an optional 'amenity', a selection which it cannot guarantee is available ahead of the person's arrival and check in at the hotel.

“I want to be able to reserve hotel accommodations online at hotels.com just like anyone else,” said one of the claimants, Bonnie Lewkowicz. “It would be unwise and potentially dangerous for me to rely on a hotel reservation service that does not guarantee the hotel room I am booking is accessible to someone in a wheelchair. Accessibility isn’t a preference for me – it’s a necessity.”

The suit is being taken by two individuals, two non-profit legal groups and a law firm specialising in class actions. It will seek others who have been affected by the issue to join the law suit.

“Disabled travellers are effectively denied access to hotel.com’s discounted rates and convenient side-by-side comparisons of available rooms,” said Victoria Ni of Public Justice, a non-profit public interest law organisation. “As a result, disabled travellers have to spend extra time and money just to secure a workable hotel reservation.”

Accessible hotel rooms generally have wide doorways and halls and grab bars in bathrooms to make them usable for people in wheelchairs.

"Although hotels.com represents on its website that it offers the lowest rates available as well as “the information travellers need to book the perfect trip,” a traveller with a mobility disability, in fact, cannot use hotels.com’s travel reservation services," says the suit. "Hotels.com does not provide information about accessibility features, and it will not guarantee reservations for accessible rooms."

California's Unruh Civil Rights Act demands that any business establishment be accessible if it is conducting business in California. It also depends on the California Disabled Persons Act, which requires any public place to be accessible.

The suit does not rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Attempts have been made to apply the ADA to websites with limited success. The Act states that places of public accommodation must be accessible to the disabled. A Florida court ruled in 2002 that websites do not count as places of public accommodation although the issue has been raised again in a lawsuit over the accessibility of retailer Target's website.