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Can architects be sued for violating the ADA?

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became federal law. It explicitly bans discrimination against individuals based on their disability. The act offers protection in several areas, including places of employment and public spaces.

How does it do this? One way the ADA protects individuals with disabilities is enforcing laws to make public spaces and buildings more accessible.

These accessibility requirements can leave many designers and architects wondering: can they be held liable in ADA lawsuits?

Are architects responsible under the ADA?

ADA compliance is a gray area for architects. After all, Title III of the ADA states that public facilities, such as schools, offices and museums must:

  • Modify public spaces to increase equal access; and
  • Design and build new spaces that meet the ADA guidelines.

These points alone are enough to make architects worry if they could be held responsible if their designs do not meet ADA guidelines.

So, are architects liable? Not usually.

Different courts have made varying judgments on this topic, but architects and designers are rarely held liable for ADA violations. The parties held responsible under the ADA in most cases are employers and property owners.

This was determined by the precedent set by a 2015 California case. The firm Salts, Troutman & Kaneshiro, Inc. (STK) faced a lawsuit because a theater they designed was not accessible for wheelchair users. However, STK was not held liable since they did not:

  • Own;
  • Lease; or
  • Operate the property.

Therefore, architects could potentially be held liable if they both design and own the property. Otherwise, it is usually a property owner’s responsibility to meet ADA guidelines.

However, designers should still take accessibility into account

This does not mean that architects should not take accessibility into account in their designs. Accessible design has become more commonplace nowadays, and it is often as simple as making hallways wider and adding more flat surfaces.

Adhering to accessible design practices can help architects ensure they do not face legal risks under the ADA.