WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is set to hear why foreign-flagged cruise ships should comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) -- and why they should not.
The matter is coming before the court because Congress did not specifically mention foreign-flagged cruise ships when it drafted the ADA. Two appeals courts have issued conflicting rulings over the ADA’s application to cruise ships.
Oral arguments in the case, Spector vs. Norwegian Cruise Line, will be heard Feb. 28.
NCL Corp., the respondent in the case, argued in its court brief that foreign-flagged cruise ships are governed by international maritime laws and treaties, unless Congress specifically legislates a domestic statute to apply to foreign ships.
Not so, say the petitioners, who sued NCL for discrimination under the ADA after they took separate cruises on the line’s Norwegian Star and Norwegian Sea in 1998 and 1999.
The disabled passengers wrote that ADA guidelines should apply to all cruise ships when they are in U.S. territorial waters because they are places of “public accommodation” and “public transportation,” both of which are specifically covered by the ADA.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is charged with creating and enforcing ADA guidelines for vehicles of transportation, is moving ahead with creating accessibility guidelines for foreign- and U.S.-flagged cruise ships.
In its advanced notice of proposed legislation last year, the DOT said, “It is the position of the U.S. that the ADA applies to foreign-flag vessels within the U.S.”
The Supreme Court hears only a handful of cases each year, and it is unusual for a travel industry-related issue to come before the justices. The cruise industry, meanwhile, is watching closely. A ruling that supports the ADA’s application to foreign-flagged cruise ships could require cruise lines to make structural changes to ships. And it could create a conflict if a ship calls on a country that has different accessibility rules.
If the court decides that the ADA applies to foreign ships, “it would put agencies like the DOT and the Access Board in a bind about how to say, ‘What are the conflicts with [international] laws?’ “ said Michael Crye, president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of NCL.