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SERVICE ANIMALS? WHAT’S A PROPRIETOR TO DO?

October 8, 2013

An individual with a disability has the right under §413.08, Fla. Stat., to be accompanied by his or her service animal in all areas of public accommodation where the public or customers are usually allowed admittance. A person who is deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired or otherwise physically disabled, who may use amplification devices to discern speech sounds, or who has a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities would be considered "an individual with a disability." A service animal is one trained to perform tasks for an individual with a disability, such as guiding a person who is visually impaired, alerting a person who is hearing impaired, pulling a wheelchair, assisting with mobility or balance, alerting and protecting a person who is prone to seizures, retrieving objects and performing other special tasks. A service animal is not a pet. Critically, business proprietors should be aware that documentation that the service animal is trained is NOT a precondition for the animal to qualify as a service animal. A proprietor may only ask if the animal is a service animal or what tasks the animal has been trained to perform in order to determine the difference between a service animal and a pet.

An individual with a disability is generally responsible for any damage caused by the service animal if the public accommodation would also charge non-disabled persons for the same damages caused by their pets. The person with the service animal is the one with responsibility to take care of or supervise the animal. Proprietors are generally not required to provide care or food or a special location for the animal or assistance with removing animal excrement. A proprietor is permitted to exclude or remove from the premises any animal, including a service animal, if the animal’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others. However, allergies or fear of animals is not a valid reason for denying access or refusing service. If a proprietor excludes the service animal, or if the animal is removed for being a direct threat to others, the proprietor must provide the individual with a disability the option of continuing access but without having the service animal on the premises. Note that trainers of service animals, while engaged in that training, have the same rights and privileges of a person with disabilities.

An important point to take away from this article is that proprietors should NOT ask for proof of training or certification as a service animal. Again, proprietors may only ask if the animal is a service animal or what tasks the animal has been trained to perform in order to determine the difference between a service animal and a pet.

If you or your company are faced with a claim involving a service animal, even if brought through the Florida Commission on Human Relations, it is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney rather than trying to handle the complaint on your own, as what is said or done in that claim may affect a later claim for damages in Circuit Court. Kubicki Draper’s attorneys are equipped to assist and defend you against these types of claims, whether they are brought through the Florida Commission on Human Relations or as a claim for damages in County or Circuit Court.

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