Dogs, Disabilities, and Discrimination at the Sports Facility

service dogs in sports facilities

People with disabilities frequently use sports facilities

Disabled patrons use sports facilities and have the same rights to use them under the law as able-bodied patrons. But questions may arise from facility staff when a patron uses a service animal. Staff may have concerns over discrimination policies with regard to animals or if animals may pose a hazard to other patrons.

Every facility should train their staff on the balancing act between these potentially conflicting interests.

Avoid liability by being discrimination and service-dog savvy

It’s important to determine whether the sports facility or center in question is, in fact, a place of public accommodation. The answer is almost always yes. Places of public accommodation are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s vital that sports facility owners and operators know and be in compliance with the anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation laws at the federal, state, and city levels.

 Legal obligations and boundaries

Allowing persons with disabilities the same opportunities as others to partake in everyday life is the primary purpose of anti-discrimination laws. In the case of service animals, knowing what to do and what not to do in potentially discriminatory situations will help to significantly reduce the risk of liability.

Service animals are, by law, allowed in places of public accommodation. They must be specifically trained with a set of skills designed to aid a classified disability under the ADA. Animals intended for emotional do not qualify. Facility owners are not legally obligated to let a comfort or emotional support dog accompany a disabled individual. Such animals may be disallowed without fear of liability or lawful obligation.

To determine whether the animal is specifically trained for service, ask if a disability requires an accompanying animal and if so, ask what tasks the animal is specifically qualified to do? Tasks typically questions of discrimination service animalsare help with stability or navigation, assistance with seizures and providing allergen or sound warnings.

However, when approaching the issue, be sure to exercise caution. Questions about the individual’s disability, whether or not the animal is certified to help with that disability or insisting that the animal exhibit proof of its disability training are all considered discrimination. 

The rights of a service dog

Most city laws state that the dog needs to be leashed or harnessed, in control and supervised by the dog’s owner. The ADA does not classify service animals as pets, and grants them access to places of public accommodation even where pets are not allowed.

Furthermore, there is no federal, state or municipal law stating that the needs of a service animal must be accommodated. Supplying the animal with water or food is not required. Should the animal pose any americans with disabilities act discriminationthreats to the safety of the patrons of a sporting event or place of public accommodation, the animal should not be allowed on the premises. 

Reducing liability

Facility owners and their employees must be up to date and properly educated on discrimination laws. in order to best protect themselves from a complaint. Remember that wherever the public is permitted, service animals are, too. And significant liabilities and fines can result from a discrimination dispute.

All individuals with disabilities have protection under federal law. That level of protection may increase further at the state and city levels. A person can receive remedies under the ADA for injunctive relief, monetary damages, and even punitive damages. And take into consideration the effects of dispute on the facility’s image and reputation.

Sports facilities must carry Directors & Officers Liability Insurance

A Directors & Officers Liability policy (D&O) should be carried by all sports facilities. D&O policies may cover certain violations of the ADA and similar laws. The coverage would consist of legal defense costs and monetary damages. It would not pay for the expense of the public accommodation to bring the facility up to code. Contact Sadler Sports Insurance if you would like to discuss further or to receive a D&O proposal.


Source: Carla Varriale; Havkins, Rosenfield, Ritzert & Varriale. “Going to the Dogs: Keeping Your Liability on a Leash.”; Sports Facilities and the Law; September-October 2019.