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Call Kurtis Investigates: Vacaville restaurant sued because website is not accessible to the blind

Vacaville restaurant sued because website is not accessible to the blind
Vacaville restaurant sued because website is not accessible to the blind 03:47

VACAVILLE — Immigrating to Northern California 40 years ago, the Villasenor Family has shared a taste of Mexico through their restaurants.

Their children now run Villa Corona Restaurant locations in Vacaville, Napa and St. Helena. But now they are accused of discriminating.

"I was shocked," Carlos Villasenor said.

A vision-impaired customer named Jesus Torres filed a lawsuit in Contra Costa County court claiming the restaurant's website has "accessibility barriers for blind or visually impaired people." The lawsuit claims it kept him from ordering food online.

Villasenor says he has no idea who Torres is and thinks he is from out of town.  He says the lawsuit was the first he heard of problems with his website, and that it doesn't work with special screen reading software.

Longtime consumer advocate Armand Bakalian who volunteers for the Call Kurtis program is blind and says it's frustrating when a website doesn't work with his screen reading technology. It reads out loud what's on a website and describes pictures.

He's struggled to get help from big corporations, but he says he normally does get help when he explains his concerns to locally-owned businesses.

"I would call the restaurant and say, you know, 'I'd love to order the food on your website, but I'm blind and your website is not providing me with enough information for me to order what I'd like. Can you help me?' " said Bakalian, who added that they normally do.

Villasenor insists Mr. Torres never called him or his staff about his restaurant's website and says he fixed the issue as soon as he heard about it. However, he told us Torres' attorney still demanded thousands of dollars to settle the lawsuit, which he says hits his family business hard — especially after barely surviving COVID-19.

"We were lucky to break even, so it's huge for us," he said. "We got to get a loan to pay this or I'm hoping we can settle at the lowest number possible, and I just don't think I need, you know, I deserve to pay them anything. I'm compliant."

I asked him if he felt like it was a shakedown.

"Total shakedown," he replied.

We searched the name Jesus Torres in Contra Costa County courts where the lawsuit against the Villa Corona Restaurant was filed and found dozens of civil rights lawsuits filed just since November of 2022.

Torres is represented in this case by Orange County attorney Joseph Manning, who has taken on corporations in accessibility cases. 

We've learned that in 2019, the Riverside County district attorney went after Manning and several other attorneys, citing the number of disability suits filed, saying, "Attorneys who manipulate these laws do so for the purpose of illegitimate financial gain. These abuses not only hurt the specific small business owners, they also jeopardize the long-term legal protections of the disabled persons these laws were designed to help."

But we've learned this case, was quickly dismissed.  

When we asked Manning about the Villa Corona case, he told us he doesn't comment on pending litigation, but said, "My firm is extremely proud of our efforts to bring the blind and visually impaired population into the 21st century....The surefire way to avoid such a lawsuit is to make your website accessible."

Carlos Villasenor says he supports accessibility for the blind. He just thinks this approach was wrong. After our initial interview, he told CBS13 he had limited money for an attorney and ended up settling the case. He can't discuss the amount.

"I've complied with the law, and I don't think he deserves any monetary compensation," he said.

Attorney Manning told me his firm takes into consideration how quickly a business resolves a matter when they resolve a case.

Advocates have come up with guidelines for websites so they are accessible to the blind. Attempts to make those guidelines law at the California State Capitol stalled this summer.

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