Legal Roundup: Taco Bell’s Drive-Thru Accessibility Questioned, BU on the Hook for Illegal Firing and More

A look at recent court decisions and how their rulings have an impact on risk management and the insurance industry.
By: | October 25, 2019

Former Boston University Worker Awarded $144,000 After Being Fired for Postpartum Depression

The Case: Maria Alves went out on maternity leave in 2016 after giving birth to her son. Soon after she was fired from her job in administration at Boston University.

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Alves had asked for an extension to her maternity leave after she was diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD), which affects nearly 75% of women after giving birth. An additional 10% of women experience a more severe PPD.

Boston University did extend Alves’ maternity leave once, because her PPD fell under FMLA. U.S. law requires up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off under FMLA. When she asked for a second extension to recover, however, BU “denied the leave and terminated Alves,” according to Yahoo! News.

“Alves said she isolated herself while suffering from postpartum depression and had only told her sister and a cousin about her struggles. Her cousin happened to work in human resources in another field, and when she learned Alves had been fired, she encouraged her to seek legal help,” said the report.

Scorecard: Three years later, a 10-person jury awarded Alves $144,000 in compensatory damages for lost wages and emotional distress.

Specifically, the jury said BU’s termination was unlawful under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the law, ” like other mental health problems, PPD can be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”

“I believe I did the right thing in holding [Boston University] accountable,” Alves said after the trial.

“Postpartum depression is really real but unfortunately when you have it you don’t want to talk about it and you don’t want to expose yourself for fear of losing your job.”

Takeaway: Finding light duty and other accommodations for employees who are out of work for any number of reasons is better than facing extended litigation.

Johnson & Johnson on the Hook for $8 Billion After Accidental Breast Enlargement Medication Lawsuit

The Case: Health product manufacturer Johnson & Johnson is under the microscope yet again, and not for its mounting opioid epidemic litigation to the more recent asbestos allegations.

The most recent development is an $8 billion award in punitive damages to a Philadelphia man who claimed his use of J&J’s antipsychotic Risperdal as a young boy caused abnormal breast enlargement.

Evidence shows that Risperdal caused a condition known as gynecomastia in boys. More than 13,000 lawsuits have been filed against J&J, alleging the conglomerate knew about the risk of the side effect but understated it to doctors.

Scorecard: According to the The Wall Street Journal, J&J plans to “immediately move ‘to set aside this excessive and unfounded verdict.’ ”

J&J also called the amount “grossly disproportionate” to the initial compensatory award of $680,000. It plans to appeal.

Takeaway: Nuclear verdicts aren’t going away, especially for companies viewed as untrustworthy in the public eye. Protection is possible; honesty in business is a must.

Drive-Thru Accessibility Questioned in Court

The Case: Are chains with drive-thru-only late night service doing enough to accommodate customers with disabilities?

That’s the question James Privette and Shaunte Jones asked themselves when they filed a class action suit against Taco Bell, alleging the fast food chain’s drive-thru-only hours violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the  complaint, the two plaintiffs state that Taco Bell’s drive-thru “lack[s] any meaningful accommodation” for visually impaired customers who cannot drive, and since the restaurants do not allow anyone to walk through the drive-through lane, they’re unable to place a late-night drive-thru order on their own.

Scorecard: Multiple lawsuits similar to the Taco Bell allegation have already seen their day in court.

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Wendy’s was put on the spot in September for the exact same allegation. McDonald’s is also facing its own noncompliance allegations with the ADA.

This Taco Bell suit also comes in on the heels of the Supreme Court decision “declining to hear an appeal by Domino’s Pizza to overturn a ruling by a lower court that its website required accommodations for a visually-impaired user to order pizza,” according to Food & Wine.

Takeaway: More class actions are coming to light, challenging corporations for ADA noncompliance, including a phenomenon known as “drive-by” lawsuits. Business owners are best set reviewing such laws to see where they may be lacking in accessibility. &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]