A California Toyota dealership must defend a lawsuit accusing it of wrongfully refusing to install portable hand controls on vehicles for a customer paralyzed from the waist down to test drive.
U.S. District Judge John Houston refused to dismiss the discrimination suit against Toyota San Diego, saying a trial is necessary to determine whether John Karczewski's request to accommodate his disability was reasonable.
Filed in 2014, the suit is one of 17 Americans with Disabilities Act cases Karczewski has brought in Southern California since 2013, including six against dealerships, federal court records show. Three of the dealerships have settled. Karczewski brought the rest of the cases against restaurants, other businesses and the city of San Diego.
In 2015, Houston dismissed the Toyota San Diego suit, but an appeals court reinstated it. The U.S. Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Karczewski in the appeals court.
Toyota San Diego contends that installing temporary hand controls would violate federal safety regulations and the manufacturer's instructions.
The store argues that it would need to train its technicians to assist drivers and that installing hand controls would create a safety risk if customers aren't trained to use them.
Karczewski counters that technicians wouldn't need training "because the installation doesn't require modification of the vehicle" and that thousands of portable controls have been sold. He says some dealerships, including ones in California, provide hand controls for test drives.
In his decision, Houston said that determining whether it's reasonable to require dealerships to accommodate customers by installing portable hand controls depends on each situation. For example, it may be a reasonable requirement for large dealerships that regularly install hand controls, have universal hand controls available and employ technicians with expertise in installing them if a customer "with clear expertise" in using them makes an advance request.
However, it may be an "unreasonably burdensome" request for many other stores, Houston wrote in the decision. Another factor is the cost to the dealership, he said.
Toyota San Diego's lawyer, Aaron Jacoby of Los Angeles, noted that major manufacturers have mobility programs that allow customers to order properly equipped vehicles.
"Every manufacturer has made the hand controls available," he said. "Every dealer has implemented the program."
Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association, said: "The dispute in these cases is what's the appropriate legal standard for requiring dealers to perform an accommodation for a disabled customer who wants to engage in a test drive."
The California association and the National Automobile Dealers Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in one of Karczewski's other cases.
"We counsel our dealers to work with the disabled community," Maas said. "If they want to test drive a vehicle, we're obviously interested in selling them cars."
But he said dealers worry about the practical problems of stocking temporary controls for hundreds of vehicles.
Other concerns include "assessing a customer's disability" to determine what hand controls to install and the customer's ability to use them, as well as possible damage to a vehicle if temporary controls are improperly installed, Maas said.
Karczewski's lawyers didn't respond to Automotive News' requests to comment.