Supreme Court: Ships Must Provide Better Access to Disabled

June 7, 2005
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that foreign-flagged cruise ships that dock in U.S. ports must comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In what is called a "splintered ruling," the Court produced what was essentially a 6-3 decision, though a slimmer 5-4 decision applies to certain points of the case; this overturns a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that held that foreign-flagged ships were not covered by the ADA.

The ruling will likely affect new-builds more than existing vessels, as the Court stressed that ships must still comply with international safety regulations, and that the ADA should not be construed to conflict with those standards (physical changes, such as widening doors or installing elevators, can threaten a ship's seaworthiness). The justices deferred to lower courts to decide the extent of "readily achievable" changes required to prevent international discord and conflict with safety laws.

The suit (Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd.) was filed by three disabled passengers who sailed on NCL ships in the late 90's; the passengers maintain that they paid extra for handicapped-accessible cabins, but were not properly accommodated. Thomas C. Goldstein, who argued the passengers' case before the Supreme Court, told the New York Times that the decision would require "straightforward changes" such as grab bars, lower water fountains and the elimination of surcharges on accessible cabins.

In a statement, NCL said that it welcomed the ruling and was "committed to providing the most accessible ships in the cruise industry."