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Justices Extend Disabled Act to Cruises

Foreign ships sailing from U.S. ports can't charge higher fares or provide a lower level of service, a split Supreme Court says.

June 07, 2005|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Foreign cruise ships operating from U.S. ports may not discriminate against disabled passengers, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 5-4 decision holds that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to foreign-flagged cruise ships and bars them from charging higher fares to disabled passengers.

More than 7 million passengers annually board these "floating resorts" at U.S. ports, the court noted. And though Americans make up the majority of those who travel aboard cruise ships, most of the vessels fly foreign flags.

The ruling was a victory for Douglas Spector, a Houston man who uses a wheelchair. He sued Norwegian Cruise Lines, a Bermuda corporation whose principal place of business is Miami and whose ships fly the flag of the Bahamas, where they are registered.

Spector alleged that he was charged more for a cabin than other passengers. He also said he was dismayed to learn he did not have access to restaurants, swimming pools and other shipboard amenities because of physical barriers. His suit was dismissed before trial by the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and he appealed.

"With this decision, the Supreme Court has told the cruise lines that we are entitled to what every other passenger receives.... The cruise lines aggressively market themselves as American and accessible, and maybe now, they will truly become just that," Spector said in a statement issued by his lawyers.

The 1990 law says disabled persons are entitled to the "full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations" and public transportation. Where possible, the law requires that barriers to disabled persons be eliminated in hotels, restaurants, buses and airplanes.

Although Congress did not say whether the law extended to cruise ships, the court's majority said it assumed lawmakers meant for its antidiscrimination rules to apply to ships operating in U.S. waters.

"To hold there is no [antidiscrimination] protection for disabled persons who seek to use the amenities of foreign cruise ships would be a harsh and unexpected interpretation of a statute designed to provide broad protection for the disabled," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion in Spector vs. Norwegian Cruise Lines.

Passengers may not be charged higher fares or given second-class treatment because of their disability, he said. However, ship owners need not undertake a major redesign of older ships to accommodate disabled persons, he added. Rather, they should make modifications that are "readily achievable."

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined Kennedy's opinion.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, saying that foreign ships should not be required to modify their rules to comply with U.S. law. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas joined in dissent.

Monday's ruling is likely to revive several other related lawsuits. Dorene Giacopini, a special-education mediator from Contra Costa County, sued Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises alleging that she was unable to move around the ship in her wheelchair on a cruise to Alaska. However, a federal judge had dismissed her claim, citing the ruling by the appeals court in New Orleans.

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