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San Francisco�Through a novel collaboration with plaintiffs suing over access for disabled diners, Taco Bell Corp. has eased its own heartburn. Not so Bob Evans. The San Diego architect has spent the past nine months traveling to California Taco Bells from Cucamonga to Cotati�more than 200 in all�compiling a report on violations of access laws for the disabled. Evans’ legwork began once U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins certified a class in a case last year that accused Taco Bell of violating state and federal disabled-access laws. In response, lawyers for both Taco Bell and the plaintiffs suing in San Francisco federal court agreed to hire Evans as a special master and to honor his findings. The idea was to eliminate tedious and time-consuming clashes between each side’s expert witnesses. The alternative “would have been, frankly, mind-numbingly competing testimony of opposing experts” on issues like counter height and door pressure, said Brad Seligman, the executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Impact Fund and one of the local lawyers working on the case. Unprecedented in pretrial Special masters are common in disabled-access settlements, but it’s rare�if not unprecedented�to have a special master in the pretrial stages. “It’s certainly a creative approach,” said Laurence Paradis, the director of Oakland, Calif.-based Disability Rights Advocates. Evans agreed, and said the work he’s doing now is similar to what he normally does after a suit is settled, or, sometimes, before a suit is filed at the request of a client aiming to avoid litigation. “To toot our own horns, this is a great idea,” said Amy Robertson, of the Denver-based husband-and-wife firm Fox & Robertson. She and partner Timothy Fox are the lead lawyers in the federal class action. They were also the lead counsel in a similar but smaller Colorado state suit against Taco Bell that settled in 2000. The California case is bigger in every way. It encompasses more than 200 restaurants owned by the company�there were only about 40 in Colorado�and takes into account a broader range of issues, including parking lot structure and the amount of pressure it takes to open a restaurant’s doors. The plaintiffs’ lawyers said the amount of money at stake is unclear. But since this suit�unlike the Colorado case�allows for punitive damages, Seligman says recovery is likely to be considerable. “There’s no question that a settlement is in the millions of dollars. The question that no one has settled is what kind of digits,” he said.

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