Balancing Your Obligations Under the ADA
Any operator of a large vehicle fleet must place a premium on driver safety. Atlanta-based United Parcel Service, Inc., which operates one of the world's largest commercial vehicle fleets, is no exception. With more than 65,000 vehicles on the road each day, one of the company's greatest potential liabilities arises from traffic accidents involving UPS trucks.
Accordingly, managers thought they were protecting the company when they implemented a policy requiring all applicants for driver positions to meet the Department of Transportation (DOT) hearing standards for drivers of the largest class of commercial vehicles. The company based its policy on three studies that showed deaf drivers were, as a general rule, more susceptible to traffic accidents than their hearing counterparts. But while the policy may have reduced the risk of traffic accidents involving deaf drivers, it exposed the company to another type of risk — legal liability for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In 1999, a group of 1,000 deaf or hearing-impaired UPS employees sued the company, arguing that the company's blanket prohibition on hiring them for driver positions illegally prevented them from advancing their careers at the company and violated their rights under the ADA. After seven years of litigation, a California federal court ruled in the employees' favor, finding that the UPS policy violated the law. The court ruled UPS could no longer enforce its policy and ordered the company to pay the plaintiffs $5.8 million.
Although the case was recently reheard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and sent back to the lower court for further proceedings, Bates vs. UPS highlights the difficult situation fleet managers face when trying to balance their need to hire safe drivers with their legal obligations under the ADA.