Are chains with drive-thru-only late night service doing enough to accommodate customers with disabilities?

By Jelisa Castrodale
Updated October 16, 2019
Credit: Owaki/Kulla/Getty Images

Last month, James Privette and Shaunte Jones filed a class action lawsuit against Taco Bell, alleging that the fast food chain violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when its restaurants close their lobbies and only allow late-night orders to be placed through the drive-thru windows.

In their complaint, which was filed in a California federal district court, the two plaintiffs state that Taco Bell's drive-thrus "lack any meaningful accommodation" for visually impaired customers who cannot drive, and since the restaurants do not allow anyone to walk through the drive-through lane, they're unable to place a late-night drive-thru order on their own. (Both Privette and Jones have compromised eyesight and are not legally allowed to drive.)

"While Taco Bell's sighted customers have the opportunity to independently browse, select, and pay for products at Defendant's drive-thrus without the assistance of others, visually-impaired people must hope for a companion with a car or paid taxi services to assist them in selecting and purchasing Taco Bell food," the complaint reads.

The lawsuit alleges that Taco Bell is "more than capable" of changing its policies to accommodate blind or visually impaired customers in its drive-thru lanes at times when the restaurants' interiors are closed, and it asks the chain to modify its policies to "equally and independently benefit from Taco Bell service." The plaintiffs are also asking for punitive damages and the right to a jury trial.

"We take pride in being accessible to all our customers and therefore take these claims very seriously," Taco Bell told Restaurant Business. "We believe this suit lacks merit and we are prepared to defend our brand vigorously."

Earlier this year, four plaintiffs filed a similar lawsuit against Wendy's, alleging the same ADA-violating late-night drive-thru policies, and asking for the same modifications, damages, and right to a jury trial. (These plaintiffs are represented by the same law firms that are representing Privette and Jones, so their complaints are very similar, other than the names of the fast food entities that are involved).

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against McDonald's about its own drive-thrus and their alleged noncompliance with the ADA. According to the Cook County Record, McDonald's asked for a summary judgement in one of those lawsuits earlier this year. In May, its attorneys argued that the visually impaired plaintiff had "meaningful access" to McFood through delivery services, that visually impaired customers had the same challenges as sighted customers who didn't have cars, and it suggested that the plaintiff should have filed his lawsuit against the franchise operators who set the policies for their restaurants.

And last November, another plaintiff's lawsuit was dismissed against McDonald's for not being specific enough. "[Plaintiff Christopher Faircloth] does not allege that he has ever attempted to access McDonald's during the late-night hours and been turned away,” U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee said in his ruling. "[T]he court may infer from the fact that Faircloth 'sometimes avoids' visiting during late­-night hours that he will similarly avoid doing so again in the future [...] but this 'some day intent' is not enough to establish standing." (Yes, Faircloth was also represented by those same attorneys.)

The Taco Bell suit comes on the heels of the Supreme Court declining to hear an appeal by Domino's Pizza to overturn a ruling by a lower court that its website required accommodations for a visually-impaired user to order pizza. Read more on that and the larger issues facing disabled users of delivery apps here.