California businesses are required to make reasonable accommodations to the needs of customers with disabilities. But what happens when a Californian who is blind is unable to shop on the website of a company based in another state?

In a recent decision, the California Court of Appeal ruled that, in some cases, the out-of-state company’s website must comply with California’s accessibility rule. (Thurston v. Fairfield Collectibles of Georgia.)

Cheryl Thurston, who is blind, is able to access websites on the Internet through use of “screen reading” software that converts text displayed on a computer screen to speech or braille. According to court testimony, she serves as a tester, visiting websites to see if they comply with antidiscrimination laws.

Both as a tester and because she was interested in buying its products, she visited the website of Fairfield Collectibles of Georgia, which the court describes as the nation’s largest seller of diecast models of cars, trucks, planes and other vehicles.

Fairfield has no store or other physical presence in California. However, about eight percent of its total sales are to California consumers who make purchases online or via its mailed catalogs, as well as to wholesalers in the state.

In 2018, Thurston sued Fairfield in San Bernardino County Superior Court, alleging that Fairfield’s website had “access barriers” that prevented visually impaired individuals from using screen reading software. This, she argued, violated the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

The law, enacted in 1959, prohibits businesses in California from discriminating based on sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, or sexual orientation.

Fairfield filed a motion to quash, or nullify, Thurston’s complaint, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction in the controversy.

Fairfield noted that it was based in McDonough, Georgia, over 2,000 miles from Thurston’s home, it had no physical presence in her state, and neither its website nor its catalogs were specifically aimed at Californians.

For these reasons, it argued, California could not obtain “personal jurisdiction” over Fairfield. In other words, the “long-arm” statute (which allows a court to obtain jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant under certain conditions) did not apply to it.

The trial court agreed, and issued an order quashing Thurston’s complaint. She then filed an appeal.

The appellate justices disagreed with the trial court. They noted that a nonresident with no physical presence in California can be sued here, provided that the nonresident has “certain minimum contacts…such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend ‘traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.’”

When a business chooses to do business in California, the justices noted, “it has clear notice that it is subject to suit” in the state. It can alleviate the risk of litigation by buying insurance, adjusting its prices, or declining to do business here, they said.

A website does not make a nonresident company subject to California law if it simply posts information. But sites that enable the user to interact with the company and make purchases are a different matter.

The justices acknowledged that courts have differed in determining how much business activity is needed to make a company subject to a state’s jurisdiction.

But, it concluded, a company “obtains the benefits and protection of our laws if as a matter of commercial reality it has engaged in economic activity within this state.” If it wishes to avail itself of those benefits and protections, it must reasonably expect to have to defend itself in court if a dispute arises.

Fairfield was generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales annually in California, and “the benefit of making substantial sales to California consumers comes at the cost of potentially being sued in California,” the justices said.

If Fairfield felt that was too burdensome, they said, it could have simply chosen not to sell to Californians, posting a notice to that effect on its website.

They ordered the trial court to reverse its ruling and deny Fairfield’s motion to quash, and awarded Thurston her costs on appeal.

This is another example of the internet changing everything about the way business is done, including extending the application of long-arm statutes.

By Laurie Murphy