December 7, 2014 - 12:01 am ET
When Diego Hurtado took his 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300w in for service in May, an available Mercedes loaner was prepared for him. Then the staff noticed Rex, his dog.
Staffers at Mercedes-Benz of Cutler Bay in Cutler Bay, Fla., refused to let Hurtado take the Mercedes loaner, saying they could only lend him a car through an on-site Hertz car rental center, which gave him a Chrysler 200. The dealership had a rule against animals in the Mercedes cars because of some customers' allergies.
But Rex, a golden retriever and yellow Labrador mix, isn't just a pet. Rex is a service dog that assists Hurtado, 53, a retired Army paratrooper, with orthopedic and balance problems and aids his post-traumatic stress disorder.
"When my service dog gets questioned," Hurtado said, "it pushes me into anxiety."
Consumers with disabilities often face questions about their service dogs from businesses, including car dealerships. Some say it happens to them daily. By law, service dogs are allowed anywhere the public can go, but many employees don't know the rules about service animals.
The issue is complicated by people who claim, incorrectly, that their pets are service dogs. But that doesn't get businesses off the hook. Denying equal treatment to a person with a service dog is illegal -- and potentially costly.
Hurtado filed a lawsuit in June. In September, he reached a settlement with Mercedes-Benz of Cutler Bay, part of the Bill Ussery Motors Group, under which the dealership agreed to pay Hurtado $5,000 in damages, pay his attorney fees and instruct its staff in the pertinent law.
The dealership will hold training sessions to teach its employees about the Americans with Disabilities Act and how to treat customers with disabilities. The dealership also will display signs to welcome people with disabilities and their service dogs.
When it comes to customers with disabilities, "there isn't sufficient training in a lot of businesses," said Matthew Dietz, a Miami civil rights lawyer who represented Hurtado.
"Hopefully this is not only going to affect this dealership, but other dealerships and facilities," he said. Put bluntly, "you can't have a rule barring" people with disabilities and their service dogs from services.
The Americans with Disabilities Act says that a service dog is trained to do work or perform tasks for a specific person with a disability.
State and local governments, businesses and nonprofits that serve the general public must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities anyplace the public is allowed to go. There are a few exceptions, such as hospital operating rooms or burn units, where the animal's presence may compromise a sterile environment.
Fred Johnson, communication specialist at the Alliance of Disability Advocates and Center for Independent Living in Raleigh, N.C., said most employees probably are unaware of the law.
"The management may be, but whether or not they trickle that down to the floor of the business ... it's a hit or miss," he said, "Sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Marc Brandes, the Miami-area lawyer who represented the dealership that denied Hurtado a Mercedes loaner, said the dealership staff "didn't have the experience or knowledge of what a service dog was."
Brandes said the case resulted in a learning experience for the staff. Before Hurtado filed suit, the staff was unaware of the problem with giving Hurtado a different car.
"I think this was the first time for everybody at the dealership," he said.
The dealership's defense was that "a car is a car," Brandes said. He said he would have preferred to go to trial had it been financially feasible.
He questions whether the dealership violated the law because it didn't refuse a vehicle to Hurtado; it only limited the choices of vehicles he could use with Rex.
Tarra Robinson had an experience similar to Hurtado's. While shopping for a Honda Civic in January, she visited dealerships near her home in Austin, Texas. But the search proved stressful.
When Robinson, 36, requested a test drive at a suburban store, the dealership's staff told her that no dogs were allowed in the vehicle.
Dogs for diabetics
Robinson's service dog, a British Labrador and golden retriever mix named Duchess, is a diabetic alert dog. Robinson has no ability to feel high or low blood sugar. But Duchess can smell low blood sugar an hour and a half before it gets too low.
"I knew they were not familiar with the laws," Robinson said. "Technically, she should be with me at all times."
The dealership's staff said the dog would shed in the car and leave a mess that they'd have to clean up. She told staffers that Duchess was a working service dog, but they said that taking Duchess along was inappropriate.
Robinson and her roommate had driven 45 minutes to the dealership, so Duchess stayed with the roommate at the dealership. But Robinson says she put herself in danger by leaving Duchess behind during her short test drive.
Robinson left the dealership without buying a car.
"I wouldn't buy from a company that doesn't accommodate my service dog and me," she said.
Robinson ended up buying a car from a dealership in Austin. She called her experience at the two dealerships a "night and day difference."
Staffers at the Austin store said they could vacuum the hair out after her test drive, and they even let her take the car for the weekend.
"They said it's for my own safety that the service dog is in the vehicle with me when I'm driving," she said.
Lorri Bernson, media and community liaison at Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar, Calif., who has a guide dog to aid her blindness, said workers at businesses ask about or try to dismiss her dog once or twice a week.
"It's usually [about] taking the time to educate them about what's proper with a guide dog," she said.
Hurtado said about once a day, some business questions him about his dog, typically saying that dogs are not allowed on their premises. They see that Hurtado has his vision and don't understand that there are service dogs for disabilities other than blindness.
"We almost expect a problem" the first time at a business or store, Hurtado said.
Rex isn't for show; he's a working dog. "He's my wheelchair. He keeps me balanced," Hurtado said. "I could actually fall without him."
When Hurtado was in dog-training class two years ago, the instructors warned that some people faced confrontation about their dogs so often that they ended up returning them. At the time, Hurtado thought that seemed silly. Now he understands.
Fake service dogs
But some confrontation may be legitimate. People often take their pet dogs into businesses and try to pass them off as service animals.
These people pose a problem for both businesses and customers with disabilities who have service dogs.
Hurtado estimated that about half of the "service dogs" he sees are not trained service animals. He said he can tell by their behavior, cleanliness and response to their owners and other dogs.
"People that do know the law are too afraid to challenge them," Hurtado said.
Bernson said that anyone can buy a service dog vest and fraudulent identification card online.
"Businesses are [stopping dogs] less and less" because they fear a lawsuit, she said.
People who try to pass off pets as service dogs, Hurtado said, are "really dirtying the water for us