Claims asserted under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of disabled individuals visiting dealerships or public places are not new. Recently, however, dealerships have been faced with a new access claim and potential lawsuit: dealerships do not have vehicles equipped specialized “hand controls” to allow disabled persons to test drive the vehicles.

Over the past year, a handful of plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against automobile dealerships in Southern California. The lawsuits follow similar fact patterns. A paraplegic visits a dealership and wants to test drive a vehicle. The dealership is unable to accommodate the request because the vehicle is not equipped with hand control devices to allow the person to drive it.

The dealership also does not have the capability to install such devices, so there is no way to accommodate the paraplegic. The individual then files a lawsuit against the dealership claiming the dealership refused to provide and install hand control devices that would enable persons with disabilities to test drive the dealers’ vehicles.

Complicating the situation, courts are not handling these suits in any uniform fashion. Some courts have dismissed cases finding that dealerships’ vehicles are inventory, rather than components of public access. Because the ADA does not require a business to alter its inventory, dealerships are likewise not required to alter their vehicles. At least one case, however, is proceeding forward. The case is currently on appeal in the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit.

Faced with the uncertainty of this potential new access requirement, dealerships have two options to protect themselves: (1) create a plan to accommodate disabled customers, or (2) prepare to defend an ADA lawsuit. To accommodate disabled customers, your dealership should look into the time restraints of acquiring and installing hand controls on a vehicle, and create a policy regarding sufficient notice from a customer to accommodate their request.

Dealerships should communicate this policy to customers and insure their employees are trained to implement it. If the expense to implement such a policy is too costly, a dealership should document its investigation and retain such documentation should any lawsuit arise. The ADA only requires “reasonable” accommodation, and if your dealership decides not to implement an accommodation policy, evidence supporting such a decision is crucial.