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Judge finds no ADA violation in Uber decision against accessibility program in Gulf cities

Wheelchair users did not convince a federal judge Uber would be able to successfully roll out accommodating vehicles in New Orleans or Jackson, Mississippi.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Ride-hail giant Uber prevailed in a bench trial in which three wheelchair users claimed the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not introducing wheelchair-accessible vehicle programs in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi.

Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg found three disabled wheelchair users did not prove Uber’s failure to introduce wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) programs in the Gulf Coast cities violated the ADA. Uber had argued the three plaintiffs' demands to accommodate their motorized wheelchairs were unreasonable.

The ADA requires companies make reasonable efforts to provide “equivalent” service to people with accessibility needs, compared to what’s offered to other customers. Uber claims it would cost too much to offer accessible rides through the UberWAV program in the two cities.

The plaintiffs argued Uber could use methods such as monetary incentives to add more accessible cars to fleets in both cities. During the bench trial this past winter, a transportation economist testified Uber could cover the costs of operating WAV programs in New Orleans and Jackson by charging an extra 10 cents for rides in those cities.

One plaintiff, New Orleans resident Francis Falls, told the court when he visited the French Quarter in late 2018 an Uber driver could not accommodate him and he had to wheel himself home. He was hit by a car and hospitalized for seven days, he said.

But the ride-hail company argued it spent $57 million to operate WAV programs in 11 U.S. cities and Toronto in 2020 and concluded costs to run a similar program in cities like New Orleans or Jackson are too high due to smaller populations and lower demand for accessible rides.

Uber premium products manager Connor Fagent testified the company would pay more than $400 per trip to operate a WAV program with a commercial fleet partner in New Orleans, and more than $1,000 per trip in Jackson. He said that’s compared to the $187-per-ride average to offer WAV service in other cities, and argued that a 10-cent surcharge would generate about $500,000 per year in New Orleans — less than $800,000 per year it would cost to run with a commercial fleet partner. 

Rider and airport operations director Niraj Patel also testified bonus programs failed to boost the number of accessible vehicles in other cities because buying and maintaining WAVs is too expensive for most drivers. Leasing programs proved unsuccessful in increasing the supply of WAV rides because most drivers don’t want to be locked into a long-term lease, Patel said.

Seeborg found the plaintiffs did not prove their demands that Uber modify its program to offer the UberWAV program in New Orleans and Jackson are reasonable. He said their claim that Uber screened out people with disabilities failed because there is no guarantee that a person requiring a WAV would be matched with a vehicle on the UberX platform.

The judge in a recent California case, Independent Living Resource Center v. Lyft, found electric wheelchair users who demanded Lyft implement WAV service with wait-time benchmarks in two counties were asking Lyft to meet new performance standards, without showing how they could be met. Seeborg said this case is different because Uber did not show how making any requested modification of its services is a fundamental alteration.

But Seeborg found the plaintiffs did not show how Uber could rely on commercial partnerships to offer a WAV program, without enough evidence of a sufficient existing base of WAVs, in New Orleans and Jackson. He also said there is not enough evidence that incentives would lead to more Uber drivers purchasing WAVs or entering into leases to do business with such a program in those cities. 

“Without evidence that a rental partnership is succeeding in other markets or evidence supporting the idea that a partnership in New Orleans or Jackson would be more successful, there is insufficient evidence to support plaintiffs’ theory that Uber could pursue a rental program to implement WAV service in New Orleans and Jackson,” Seeborg wrote.

He rebuffed Uber’s argument in a posttrial brief that “plaintiffs seek to weaponize Uber’s positive steps and efforts against Uber.” He wrote that although no injunction requiring Uber to offer a WAV program in these cities is warranted, “Such an injunction would not constitute ‘punishment’ as characterized by Uber.”

He added: “The argument that Uber has done its ‘fair share’ in providing WAV access in other cities mischaracterizes the purpose and design of the ADA."

Uber spokesperson Carissa Simons said the company "welcomes the outcome and are proud of our efforts to improve accessibility for all users, including through Uber WAV."

Attorneys for the three plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment by press time. 

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