Disability Requirements Extended to Foreign Cruise Ships ; the Supreme Court Rules 5 to 4 That Cruise Lines Operating in US Waters Must Take Steps to Make Their Ships Accessible to All Passengers

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Foreign-flagged cruise ships serving US ports must comply with the public accommodations requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

In a case with important implications for the increasingly popular cruise ship industry, the US Supreme Court Monday ruled 5 to 4 that cruise lines operating in US waters must take reasonable steps to make their ships accessible to all passengers - including those who use wheelchairs and electric scooters.

Cruise industry officials had argued that enforcement of American civil rights laws like the ADA aboard foreign-flagged ships would amount to an extra-territorial application of US law.

The vast majority of cruise ships operating from US ports are registered in other countries - like Panama, Liberia, or the Bahamas - and are thus subject to the regulations and sovereign authority of a foreign nation. In addition, cruise ships must comply with international shipping treaties establishing common standards.

Cruise ship companies register their ships overseas to avoid US taxes and more stringent labor and safety regulations. But they base their ships and businesses within the US and primarily target American consumers. For example, 76 percent of all cruise passengers worldwide are US residents, according to industry estimates.

When Congress passed the ADA, it sought to achieve full participation in American life by disabled individuals. Anyone operating public services and accommodations must make reasonable efforts to permit the "full and equal enjoyment" of those services and accommodations despite an individual's disabilities.

While it is clear that the law applies throughout the US, what was less clear was whether it applies aboard foreign-flagged cruise ships that pick up passengers at a US port, depart for international waters, and then return to a US port.

Two federal appeals courts considered the issue and reached different conclusions. The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that the ADA applies to foreign-flagged ships, while the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that it does not. …