Several years ago, a McDonald’s patron ordered some coffee through a drive-through, accidentally spilled it on her lap, and sued the fast food chain for damages afterward, in what has been widely pilloried as a legal system run amok. Everybody who rolls their eyes at those warnings on coffee cups about their beverage being extremely hot have that lawsuit to thank for it. But the case was not nearly as frivolous as it appeared; McDonald’s really did bear significant liability for that woman’s injuries and had plenty of opportunities to settle before things went as far as they did. As is often the case with our legal system, and the compliance requirements that are spawned by it, what appears to be a foolish legal crusade speaks to larger, deeper, more substantial truths worth considering.
The latest example is a class action brought against AMC theatres by a group of blind moviegoers who allege that the theatre chain discriminated against them by failing to accommodate for their disability. Well, of course, cries the cynic. They’re blind; how are they supposed to enjoy a movie?
I am reminded of my college days when one of my best friends and I would hit the theatres. He was legally blind and could barely see more than a few feet in front of him. And yet, we still enjoyed watching the flicks, mostly by sitting in the front row, and with me explaining to him things that were happening on the big screen. Given how we both loved action-adventure movies, you can imagine that I had to explain a lot. But it was okay. If it meant my buddy could enjoy the show too, so it was more than worth it.
That is what’s at issue here, really. Not a bunch of blind people looking to sue a business because of their blindness, but because AMC failed to provide various kinds of devices that really are meant to give a blind patron a fun experience. Listening devices you can wear that describe the action go a long way to including even those without sight to enjoy a picture show. But these plaintiff allege that they were given devices that didn’t work or were for the wrong movie, and their concerns were not taken seriously by the management. When we speak of tone at the top, we speak of high-level strategic leadership. One cam imagine how hard you would have to work to get your tone at the top to percolate all the way down to the kids running a local theatre. So one’s sympathies are there for AMC, too. But this is a case with serious merit, and one hopes that before the entire thing runs its course, a reasonable settlement can be found between those bringing the suit and AMC. Otherwise, what we’ll be left with is another outcome down the line where the numbers of the case, and the preset biases of a skeptical, cynical public, turn it into something that it is not.
Compliance officers must remains ever cautious of the goings-on of the legal system and, depending on the nature of their organization, the likelihood that the public will sue them. Retail operations such as movie theatres face an outsized legal risk, mitigated by strong compliance, robust risk management, good insurance, and other things. And yet, sometimes, we see, all of that means nothing if the folks on the ground, the points of access your clients have with your organization, fail on the simplest terms to accept the humanity of all clients in all of their forms, with all of their limitations, with all of their expectations. The customer is always right … even when it’s a blind person watching a movie.
Especially when it’s a blind person watching a movie.