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SACRAMENTO � State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, may have drafted the ultimate solution to a long-standing battle over disability-access litigation. Her Senate Bill 747 is supported by two groups who rarely see eye-to-eye: the Consumer Attorneys of California and the California Chamber of Commerce. The California Hotel and Lodging Association likes it, too. And the bill recently sailed out of the state Senate with almost unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans. The only real flaw with SB 747 is that it doesn’t really say anything � not yet anyway. The bill’s 71 words simply express the Legislature’s “intent” to promote business compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and related state laws and to discourage “litigation that seeks attorney’s fees and damages without facilitating compliance with those laws.” How will lawmakers accomplish this lofty goal? The bill doesn’t say. But state senators seem willing to pass SB 747 to the state Assembly with the hope that Corbett and others can eventually come up with language that addresses a historically divisive legal issue. Corbett wasn’t available to talk about SB 747 on Tuesday, her office said. But the bill appears tied to a truce negotiated last year between business groups and trial lawyers after the two sides threatened each other with dueling ballot measures. The California Restaurant Association and the California Building Industry Association had proposed an initiative to curb disability-access lawsuits. The Consumer Attorneys of California retaliated with three of their own initiatives targeting homebuilders.
A Senate committee analysis of the bill suggests that Corbett, a former trial lawyer, is trying to walk a fine legislative line by reducing businesses’ exposure to access lawsuits while ensuring the rights of dis-abled patrons to sue over violations.

The three groups dropped their initiative campaigns after lawmakers agreed to address their concerns in the Legislature. No one is saying much publicly about SB 747. In letters to Corbett and the state Senate, however, the Chamber of Commerce and Consumer Attorneys make some mild concessions about disability-access laws. “Businesses have a responsibility to comply with access laws,” a chamber letter dated May 10 said, “but California’s laws should facilitate and acknowledge the efforts of businesses who desire to comply and take steps accordingly.” The Consumer Attorneys wrote that “while most suits brought under the California disability protection laws seek better compliance for people with disabilities and should be encouraged, there are some suits that don’t appear to have compliance as a primary goal.” A Senate committee analysis of the bill suggests that Corbett, a former trial lawyer, is trying to walk a fine legislative line by reducing businesses’ exposure to access lawsuits while ensuring the rights of disabled patrons to sue over violations. The analysis, written by staff of the Judiciary Committee that Corbett chairs, says that business groups, disability advocates and “other interested parties” are negotiating a three-pronged approach. First, they’re proposing increased training in access laws for architects, engineers and other design professionals, perhaps including building inspectors. Second, they’ve discussed a greater role for the Certified Access Specialist Program, a project in the state architect’s office designed to help businesses with compliance issues. Created in 2003, the program is not expected to be operational until next year. Finally � and most vaguely � the analysis says negotiators are trying to provide some kind of legal protection for businesses trying “in good faith” to follow access laws. “Starting from the premise that the civil rights of persons with disabilities cannot and will not be curtailed by placing any bar to litigation � stakeholders and the authors are discussing several alternative mechanisms to provide some type of relief for businesses that are in compliance or are in the process of complying with the ADA in good faith and are confronted with potential litigation,” the committee report said. The analysis does not say what those “alternative mechanisms” are. SB 747 is now awaiting a committee assignment in the state Assembly.

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