NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans' historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar is among the latest targets of the Bizer Law Firm, which has filed more than 100 Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits for the same group of plaintiffs in five years.
The law firm represents three men with varying disability levels who are suing the city of New Orleans; the Regional Transit Authority (RTA); and the RTA's private manager, Transdev, claiming lack of access to the St. Charles Streetcar. That lack of access, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court on April 19, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
"While I don’t know all the details and can’t comment on this case in particular, we’ve recently seen a spike in civil lawsuits targeting property owners and small businesses for relatively minor violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)," Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch (LLAW) Executive Director Melissa Landry told the Louisiana Record. "We understand much of the ADA litigation in Louisiana has been driven by the Bizer Law Firm, which has reportedly filed more than 100 lawsuits on behalf of a small group of serial plaintiffs over the last five years. For example, one of the plaintiffs in this case is involved in more than a dozen other ADA lawsuits against local businesses."
Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch is a non-partisan, non-profit, citizen watchdog group that focuses on civil justice issues in the state. Since Landry became executive director in 2008, the LLAW's numbers have swelled to more than 6,000 who work to raise awareness about the costs and consequences of lawsuit abuse.
Landry and the LLAW are not the first to observe Bizer as the source of a surge in New Orleans-area ADA lawsuits in the past half decade. In 2012, David Whitaker, partner at New Orleans-based defense firm Kean Miller, said in a Legal Newsline story that Bizer's ADA lawsuit were formulaic, aimed more at getting defendants to settle than to write any disabilities wrongs. That year, Bizer brought 33 ADA lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
"These complaints are like cookie-cutters," Whitaker said at the time. "They are all the same. The only thing that really changes is the name of the plaintiff."
Landry said she has since observed much the same in Bizer-litigated lawsuits, a repeating pattern of cases against area businesses and government agencies.
"Court records show a large number of these cases have settled for undisclosed amounts of money, which perhaps explains why we continue to see more and more of these suits," she said. "It seems that the availability of attorney fees under the ADA has created a profit motive that’s driving this new tidal wave of litigation."
Bizer Law Firm did not respond to the Louisiana Record's request for comment, but Andrew Bizer told another news outlet that his clients in the St. Charles Streetcar were open to compromise.
The St. Charles Streetcar case was filed less than a month after another cased filed by the Bizer Law Firm federal case against the city of New Orleans, RTA and Transdev. In that case, the plaintiffs allege the city's bus stops are not ADA compliant.
For its part, the RTA's website maintains provisions are made for people with disabilities, including standard buses and streetcars equipped with devices for disabled riders and paratransit service.
"The Americans with Disabilities Act is an important tool in the ongoing battle to ensure that disabled citizens have equal access to jobs and opportunities in our country," Landry said. "However, it appears that this well-meaning law is now being manipulated by some personal injury lawyers to enrich themselves at the expense of businesses and job creators."
Those personal injury lawyers taking advantage of the ADA know who to go after, Landry said.
"Property owners and small businesses in the Greater New Orleans area are especially vulnerable to this new wave of ADA litigation," she said. "For some small locally owned shops and restaurants who can’t afford to pay huge settlements or millions of dollars to renovate their old and sometimes historic properties, one lawsuit could be all it takes to put them out of business."
Those vulnerable would-be targets needs to be wary in this litigious climate, Landry said.
"The goal of the ADA is to provide access to people with disabilities, not profits for personal injury trial lawyers," Landry said. "Nevertheless, the threat of civil litigation is real. Abusive, drive-by ADA lawsuit abuse must be stopped. In addition, businesses should assess whether they need to take steps to be compliant and help protect themselves from the abuse."