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Court has ruled ships must have disabled access

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Supreme Court rules cruise ships must provide disabled access

By Hope Yem

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

The narrow 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.

A spokeswoman for the International Council of Cruise Lines, based in Arlington, Va., said the group was reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment. The ruling has wide implications for the cruise industry, which fears that remodeling to comply with the disabilities law could cost millions.

Court ruling: Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd. [PDF]

Congress intended the 1990 American with Disabilities Act to apply to cruise lines, justices said.

"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 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 unclear how much the $2.5 billion foreign cruise industry, which carries 7.1 million passengers each year, will actually have to reconfigure pools, restaurants and emergency equipment for wheelchair accessibility, an upgrade that could cost the industry millions.

Kennedy noted that cruise lines need not comply with Title III of the ADA to the extent it creates too much international discord or disruption of a ship's internal affairs, under a provision of the statute that calls only for "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," Kennedy wrote, in sending the case back to lower court to determine what is ultimately 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 in Houston in 1998 and 1999, say they paid premiums for handicapped-accessible cabins and the assistance of crew but the cruise line failed to configure restaurants, elevators and other facilities in violation of 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.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that extending the federal law to foreign ships will create international discord and 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.

The case was an appeal from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans, which ruled in January that foreign-flag cruise ships are not covered by the ADA. Under the Supreme Court's decision, the disabled passengers who filed suit may now proceed to trial to prove discrimination.

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