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Court Expands Scope of Disabilities Law

Jun 6, 2005
Court Expands Scope of Disabilities Law

Associated Press - June 6th, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.

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.

The case is Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line, 03-1388.