Leveraging the Power of Disability Access Laws: Maximizing Recovery in Premises Liability Cases

The Unruh Civil Rights Act affords an often-overlooked, but very powerful tool to plaintiffs litigating premises liability claims under certain circumstances. For disabled individuals injured due to dangerous property conditions, asserting a claim for violation of disability access provisions under the Unruh Act can be a game-changer, offering significant tactical benefits and potential for substantial added recovery.

Under the Unruh Act, if a property’s dangerous condition violates either the ADA Accessibility Guidelines or the California Building Code’s disability access provisions, it can create liability per se or strict liability against the property owner. This means that the plaintiff, typically a disabled individual, does not need to prove that the property owner knew or should have known of the dangerous condition. Instead, the mere existence of non-compliance establishes liability if the disabled person “encountered” it and it caused that disabled person to suffer in some appreciable way.

The strategic advantages of asserting Unruh Act claims in premises liability cases are multifaceted and compelling. First, plaintiffs can recover not only their actual damages, but failing to prove that, are entitled to recover minimum statutory damages of $4,000. In addition, prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to recover their attorneys’ fees. This provision alleviates the financial burden on plaintiffs, as they can recoup some or all of their legal expenses from the defendant, thereby preserving a larger portion of their recovery.

Moreover, the Unruh Act empowers plaintiffs to seek civil penalties if they can demonstrate that the property owner knew of the non-compliance or acted with conscious disregard regarding it. In such cases, juries have the authority to award up to three times the actual damages as a penalty against the defendant. This serves as a powerful deterrent against property owners who neglect disability access requirements or engage in willful misconduct.

The inclusion of attorneys’ fees provision in the Unruh Act is particularly significant, as it incentivizes early settlement and discourages delay-game tactics often employed by defense attorneys. Facing the prospect of a substantial attorneys’ fee award to the plaintiff’s lawyer, defendants are incentivized to seriously consider settlement offers, thereby expediting resolution and ensuring fair compensation for the injured party.

For plaintiffs and their attorneys, leveraging the Unruh Act in premises liability cases provides a strategic advantage that can tip the scales in their favor. 

In conclusion, asserting Unruh Act claims in premises liability cases offers significant benefits for disabled plaintiffs, including streamlined liability, enhanced recovery potential, and increased leverage in negotiations. As advocates for justice and accessibility, attorneys must recognize and harness the power of disability access laws to effectively represent their clients and effectuate meaningful change in our communities.