Court to Hear Disability Suit Against Cruise Ships

The Supreme Court (search) on Tuesday agreed to consider whether foreign cruise lines sailing in U.S. waters must comply with a federal disabilities law requiring better access to passengers in wheelchairs.

The case seeks to determine what Congress intended when it passed the landmark American Disabilities Act (search) in 1990 barring discrimination against the disabled in the enjoyment of services in places of "public accommodation."

Disabled groups, who boarded a Norwegian Cruise Line (search) in Houston in 1998, say they weren't given adequate access to ship pools, restaurants and emergency equipment. In other situations, they alleged they were forced to pay additional fees for wheelchair accessible rooms, inhibiting their rights to "participate fully in society."

Norwegian Cruise Line counters that only an express 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 well-established principle of maritime and international law prevents unintended clashes between port states and flag states over the governance of oceangoing ships," Norwegian's filing states.

The case has wide implications for the cruise industry, which could be forced to spend millions of dollars to remodel ships. The International Council of Cruise Lines (search) filed a friend of the court brief in support of Norwegian Cruise Line, while several advocacy groups joined in a brief for the disabled plaintiffs.

"Making cruise ships fully accessible to people with disabilities makes good business sense," the brief from Paralyzed Veterans of America (search) and other groups stated, citing an expected surge in the disabled population due to aging baby boomers.

The case is 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.

Both the cruise lines and disability groups then urged the Supreme Court to take the case, noting a conflict with an 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2000 saying foreign ships must comply with the law. In that lawsuit, a Florida resident said she had to pay additional fees for a room with disabled access.

After the 11th Circuit decision, several cruise lines settled lawsuits claiming ADA violations, and a federal judge in Miami ordered a Casino Princesa Ship in 2001 to make restrooms more wheelchair-accessible.

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