updated 6/6/2005 12:30:46 PM ET 2005-06-06T16:30:46

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.

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The narrow 5-4 decision is a victory for disabled rights advocates, who said inadequate ship facilities inhibited their right to “participate fully in society.”

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, with two-thirds of its passengers Americans, will actually have to reconfigure pools, restaurants and emergency equipment for wheelchair accessibility, an upgrade that could cost the industry millions.

That’s because Kennedy also writes 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 required of cruise lines.

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.

Scalia's dissent
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.

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.

“Title III plainly affects the internal order of foreign-flag cruise ships, subjecting them to the possibility of conflicting international obligations,” Scalia wrote in an opinion joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist as well as Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas.

The ruling has wide implications for the cruise industry, which fears the remodeling will cost it millions. The Bush administration and several state attorneys general backed the disabled passengers while the International Council of Cruise Lines supported Norwegian Cruise Line.

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 which filed suit may now proceed to trial to prove they were discriminated.

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 ruling in 2000 that foreign ships must comply with the law.

After the 11th Circuit decision, several cruise lines settled lawsuits claiming ADA violations, while some voluntarily agreed to make their facilities more wheelchair-accessible.

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

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