Cracker Barrel settles federal suit over handicapped parking

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store has settled a class-action lawsuit brought by a basketball star who claimed handicapped parking spaces at some restaurants are too steep or otherwise violate federal law.

Sarah Heinzl, of Pittsburgh, plays on the U.S. Women's Wheelchair Basketball National Team and sued in 2014. She claimed parking spaces at the Robinson Township restaurant were so sloped her wheelchair would roll away before she could get into it so she'd bring along her mother to help whenever she wanted to eat there.

"That's exactly the type of thing the Americans With Disabilities Act was supposed to prevent," Heinzl's attorney, Benjamin Sweet told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "It's supposed to make the facilities independently usable. You're not supposed to have to bring a family member or a loved one with you."

Officials with the Lebanon, Tennessee-based chain didn't immediately comment on the settlement. It received preliminary approval Monday by a federal magistrate in Pittsburgh who set a hearing Aug. 10 to formally approve it.

Under the settlement, Cracker Barrel has 2½ years to fix slope and other handicapped parking problems at 107 restaurants in seven states and up to seven years to fix any problems revealed by court-ordered architectural surveys of its 536 other restaurants.

After suing, Heinzl's attorneys visited six more restaurants in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio and found similar problems, so they expanded their investigation to 107 stores in those and four other states, Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, and Texas, Sweet said.

About 20 percent of those restaurants had parking spaces with more than a 2.1 percent slope — the maximum allowed under federal law — and all of them had some violations, including things like inadequate signage, Sweet said. Some of the parking spaces had slopes that were six times as steep as the law allows.

Court records show Cracker Barrel disputed those findings before agreeing to settlement discussions after Heinzl's lawsuit was certified a class-action in December 2015. Heinzl's attorneys tried to get the magistrate to rule in her favor without a trial.

Cracker Barrel also has agreed to pay Heinzl $7,500 and Sweet's law firm $830,000 for its work on the lawsuit and future monitoring of Cracker Barrel's compliance with the settlement, Sweet said.

Cracker Barrel must notify any potential class member plaintiffs by sending notices to disability advocacy agencies, posting settlement notices at its restaurants and by establishing a website, .

The Aug. 10 hearing is to hear objections from any plaintiffs who might disagree with the settlement, Sweet said.

"For millions of Americans and people with disabilities, our wheelchairs are our legs and our greatest tool as we seek to live independent, happy lives," Heinzl said. "But when the built environment works against you despite regulations that have been in effect for over a quarter-century, our legs become unusable and even the slightest slope can present a grave danger."