- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005


The Supreme Court, expanding the scope of a landmark federal disabilities law, ruled yesterday that foreign cruise lines sailing in U.S. waters must provide better access for passengers in wheelchairs.

The 6-3 decision is a victory for disabled rights advocates, who said inadequate ship facilities inhibited their right to participate fully in society.

“With this decision, the Supreme Court has told the cruise lines that we are entitled to what every other passenger receives — access to emergency equipment and the full range of public facilities,” said Douglas Spector of Houston, one of the disabled passengers suing the cruise lines.

J. Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines in Arlington, said the group was pleased because justices indicated wholesale changes were not required. Experienced disabled travelers, he said, “recognize that this industry is one of the most accessible industries for special-needs passengers.”

Congress intended the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to apply to cruise lines, justices said.

There are 184 cruise ships in about 1,800 ports worldwide, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“The statute is applicable to foreign ships in the United States waters to the same extent that it is applicable to American ships in those waters,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Still, the ruling is not clear about how much the $2.5 billion foreign cruise industry, which carries 7.1 million passengers each year, will have to reconfigure pools, restaurants and emergency equipment for wheelchair accessibility, an upgrade that could cost the industry millions.

Justice Kennedy said cruise lines need not comply with Title III of the ADA to the extent that it creates too much international discord or disruption of a ship’s internal affairs, under a provision of the statute that calls for only “readily achievable” modifications.

“It is likely that under a proper interpretation of ‘readily achievable’ Title III would impose no requirements that interfere with the internal affairs of foreign-flag cruise ships,” he wrote in sending the case back to a lower court to determine what ultimately is required of cruise lines.

Justice Clarence Thomas provided the sixth vote holding that the ADA applies. But he joined the dissenters in saying the actual modifications required under the federal law did not extend to changes to a ship’s “physical structure.”

Three disabled passengers who boarded Norwegian Cruise Line ships in Houston in 1998 and 1999 said they paid premiums for handicapped-accessible cabins and the assistance of crew members but the cruise line failed to configure restaurants, elevators and other facilities in agreement with the ADA.

Norwegian Cruise Line countered that only an explicit statement of Congress can justify imposing the U.S. law on a ship that sails under a foreign flag, even if it is docked at a U.S. port. The federal law is silent as to whether foreign cruise lines are covered by the ADA.

“This decision provides much-needed guidance to the cruise industry and prevents the ADA from being applied in ways in which it was never intended to be applied,” the cruise line stated yesterday.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said that extending the federal law to foreign ships will create international discord and that it is wrong because Congress does not explicitly call for it.

The ruling should leave no opening for ships to be required to change their amenities to fit the laws of each country they visit, he said in a dissent joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Much of the industry registers its ships away from home countries in places such as the Bahamas, Liberia, Honduras, Panama and Cyprus, which promote the practice by pointing to their business-friendly regulatory outlooks. The U.S. cruise industry is almost exclusively foreign flagged.

In 1998, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Carnival Cruise Lines for not being wheelchair friendly. Carnival settled the case in 2001, agreeing to make substantial changes to is fleet to improve access for the disabled.

In 2001, Norwegian Cruise Line settled a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department and agreed to allow blind people to travel on its ships under the same terms and conditions as other passengers.

Staff writer Melissa Brosk contributed to this report.

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