NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in California has allowed a class-action lawsuit to proceed against Target Corp brought by plaintiffs claiming the discount retailer's Web site is inaccessible to the blind.
The ruling allows blind individuals, who say that many other retailers have designed their Web sites to be accessible through special software that vocalizes online content, to join collectively in the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs contend that the company does not allow them full and equal access to Target stores because they cannot obtain online product and sales information.
The decision, made public on Tuesday by Judge Marilyn Patel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, also rejected Target's motion for summary judgment in the case.
"This is a tremendous step forward for blind people throughout the country who for too long have been denied equal access to the Internet economy," Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation for the Blind, said in a statement following Tuesday's ruling.
The federation, which has more than 50,000 members, says that the Web sites of many other retailers, including Target's larger rival, Wal-Mart Stores Inc, have been made accessible to blind shoppers who use screen reading software to access the Internet.
"Wal-Mart, which is a very similar company but bigger, is accessible, so there is no question that their (Target's) Web site can be accessible," said John Pare, executive director for strategic initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind.
According to the lawsuit, plaintiff Bruce Sexton, a California resident, uses screen reading software to access the Internet but has been unable to use certain features of Target's site. The software vocalizes text and describes the content of the Web page.
The plaintiffs, including the federation, say redesigning the Target site to be readable by blind people would be technologically easy and not economically prohibitive.
Minneapolis-based Target said in a statement that it was disappointed that the judge had granted class-action status to the case, but said the decision was a procedural ruling only.
"We will request an immediate review of the ruling granting class certification and we are confident that we will prevail on the merits of this case," the company said.
"Regardless of the outcome, accessibility will remain a priority for Target and we will continue to implement new technologies to enhance the usability of our Web site for all of our guests.
In the decision, the judge said that after the lawsuit was filed, Target has made some modifications to its Web site to make it more accessible to the blind.
In court papers, Target has argued that Sexton has not shown any kind of legal injury that impedes him from obtaining goods or services at the company's physical stores.
The case was filed in February 2006. The court threw out a portion of the suit in September 2006, dismissing the plaintiffs' claims to the extent that they are based on Web site features that were unconnected to the physical stores.
Martin Wymer, a partner at law firm Baker & Hostetler LLP who represents companies in litigation matters, said that other retailers are likely taking a hard look at the accessibility of their Web sites.
In addition to trying to avoid lawsuits, "there's a business benefit from opening up your doors to that many more customers," he said.
(Reporting by Martha Graybow and Lewis Krauskopf, editing by Brian Moss and Deborah Cohen)