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Through a novel collaboration with plaintiffs suing over access for disabled diners, Taco Bell has eased its own heartburn. Not so for Bob Evans. The San Diego architect has spent the past nine months traveling to 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 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 lawyers working on the case. 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-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 & Robinson. 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 plaintiff 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. Because of limited recoveries allowed under Colorado law, the case settled for a little cash, including $210,000 in attorney fees, and changes made by the restaurant. That led to the California case. “In 2002, we were getting reports of further problems in California Taco Bells,” said Fox. Fox and Roberston filed a broader claim in late 2002 in the Northern District of California. Jenkins certified the class in February 2004. With a wide set of facts at stake, the class certification prompted Taco Bell and the plaintiff lawyers to agree on hiring the special master. “It was a mutually investigatory enterprise,” Robertson said. “At least we’re not arguing over inches.” While Taco Bell’s fate will be hard to predict until Evans files his report June 30, the bigger stakes could make this case harder for Taco Bell to swallow. Jeffrey Dasteel, a partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said Tuesday that Taco Bell had no comment on the issue. But his opposing counsel commended the restaurant’s cooperation. “We all agree settlement talks are the next step, and that’s something the judge expects us to do,” Seligman said. But first, Evans has to hit Taco Bells at a rate of about one per business day to make the June 30 deadline for their report. The architect and his small staff have been visiting about 20 company-owned sites — independent franchisees aren’t part of the suit — each month for the past nine months. “It’s been awhile,” Evans said. “We have a lot of work to do.” So much that Robertson asked that a reporter not bother Evans as he nears his deadline. As harried as his work has been, Evans said it didn’t take long for him and his staff to resist the temptation of an easy lunch. “After the first week, we headed over to McDonald’s,” he said. The federal case is Moeller v. Taco Bell, C-02-5849.

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