A federal judge has ruled that Taco Bell violated federal and California laws protecting the disabled from discrimination at its restaurants.
U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland is now deciding what improvements the company must make to its 220 stores in California and how much the fast-food chain must pay the thousands of customers represented in the lawsuit who use wheelchairs and scooters.
Taco Bell could appeal the ruling. Company spokesman Rob Poetsch declined comment because the lawsuit was still pending.
The customers are represented by several disability rights organizations and Tim Fox, a Denver lawyer who filed a similar lawsuit against Taco Bell in Colorado. Taco Bell settled that lawsuit in 2000 by agreeing to improve its existing restaurants and include disabled access in new buildings.
Hamilton's ruling Wednesday stems from a class-action lawsuit disabled customers filed in December 2002. They alleged California stores failed to provide proper handicap parking, wheelchair accessible tables and restrooms and other accommodations for the disabled that are required by state and federal laws.
Taco Bell argued that it had fixed many of the alleged violations over the last nine years, including complying with a 2007 order from the judge to fix problems with its lines, doors and tables.
But the judge said the company was still out of compliance in several areas and "is not currently following its own access policies, and has a history of not doing so." She said Taco Bell managers failed to follow internal policies to inspect the store before it opened each morning to ensure it was in compliance with disability laws.
Hamilton's ruling came after a weeklong trial in June conducted without a jury. The trial focused on a single store in San Pablo as an "examplar" of all company-owned stores in California.
Taco Bell is owned by Louisville, Ky.-based Yum Brands Inc.