In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that foreign-flag cruise ships operating in U.S. waters were places of "public accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act and must remove barriers impeding disabled passengers unless the removal of a barrier would adversely impact the safety of the vessel.

A group of disabled passengers and their traveling companions booked cruises departing from Houston in 1998 and 1999 on ships owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd.

After returning from their cruises, the passengers filed a class-action lawsuit against Norwegian in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, claiming the cruise ships were not fully accessible to disabled passengers in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Title III of the law prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals in the full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations.

Entities providing public accommodations must, among other things, "remove architectural and structural barriers, or if barrier removal is not readily achievable, must ensure equal access for the disabled through alternative methods," the law says.

The plaintiffs complained that the ships' coamings, the raised edges around exterior doors, impeded access to people who use wheelchairs or scooters to get around.

U.S. District Judge John D. Rainey granted Norwegian's motion to dismiss the passengers' barrier claim and the passengers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which affirmed the lower court ruling.

On the issue of Title III's applicability to foreign-flag ships, the 5th Circuit determined that Title III did not apply in U.S. waters based on rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in Benz v. Compania Naviera Hildalgo S.A., 353 U.S. 138 (1957) and McCulloch v. Sociedad Nacional de Marineros de Honduras, 372 U.S. 10 (1963).

In those decisions, the appellate court said that without a clear indication of congressional intent, general statutes do not apply to foreign-flag ships. Therefore, the court found that Title III did not apply in this case.

The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed in a 5-4 decision.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the decision for the majority, which included himself and Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented in a separate opinion.

The majority ruled that Title III is applicable to foreign-flag ships operating in U.S. waters because the ships are a "public accommodation" and a "specified public transportation" under the law. The justices based their decision on "conventional principles of interpretation."

However, the majority ruled that cruise ships would not have to remove coamings under the ADA's barrier-removal provisions if the removals would fundamentally alter the structural design of the ship or conflict with safety provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

The dissenting justices said the majority had impermissibly stretched Title III to cover foreign cruise ships. Justice Scalia wrote the dissent, joined by Rehnquist, O'Connor and Thomas.

Justice Scalia was troubled by the majority's conclusion that even though Title III did not explicitly include foreign-flag ships in its coverage, they applied it to foreign-flag ships absent clear congressional intent.

"Title III of the ADA stands in contrast to other statutes in which Congress has made clear its intent to extend its laws to foreign ships," he said. Since there is no clear indication that Title III applies to foreign-flag cruise ships, Justice Scalia said the court should have concluded that Title III did not apply.

Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., No. 03-1388, 125 S. Ct. 2169 (U.S. June 6, 2005).
Disability Litigation Reporter
Volume 02, Issue 09
Copyright 2005

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