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Thanks to a recent court decision that says cruise ships must accommodate the disabled, some cruise lines are expecting an onslaught of lawsuits accusing them of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Since the Premier case, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of lawsuits related to ADA and cruise lines,” says Laura Amor, special needs specialist for Royal Caribbean International Ltd. “We’re all feeling it.” Amor is referring to the case Tammy Stevens v. Premier Cruises Inc. Stevens, a wheelchair-bound Jacksonville woman, was promised a wheelchair-accessible cabin aboard Premier Cruises’ S.S. Oceanic. In the suit, she contends that her room, as well as other areas on the ship, were not wheelchair-accessible. She sued the cruise line in March 1998, contending that the Port Canaveral, Fla.-based line violated Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires facilities throughout the U.S. to be accessible to the disabled. But Title III of the ADA makes no mention of cruise ships. What’s more, cruise lines traditionally have claimed exemption from many U.S. rules because their ships are foreign-flagged. The S.S. Oceanic, for example, sails under the Bahamian flag. For the above reasons, Steven’s case was first thrown out by the U.S. District Court in Miami. But in June, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled in the case, saying foreign-flagged cruise ships docking in U.S. ports must follow ADA guidelines as well. Now the case, which some expect will travel as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, is triggering a wave of lawsuits against cruise lines. The number of ADA complaints involving cruise lines has jumped from about 600 in December to about 1,200 today, says Michael Brennan, a Miami-based consultant on ADA issues. “So what does this mean for existing cruise ships?” asks Brennan. “It means in order to remove themselves from existing litigation they need to do more than they have been doing.” But retrofitting ships is costly. At Royal Caribbean International, Amor expects that the cost to retrofit its older ships could amount to tens of millions of dollars. “We’re talking large sums of money,” Amor said, adding that the line will only make the changes on its older ships if required to do so. Among Stevens’ complaints were the ship’s lack of wheelchair-accessible paths, a lack of ADA-approved guidance signs, problems with doors, a lack of wheelchair-accessible cabins, and improper emergency exit signs for people in wheelchairs. Cruise line representatives argue that one challenge they face in making ships more accessible is the space limitation of ships and safety issues. For example, gangways, which are used to connect the ships to the dock, by their nature can be difficult for wheelchair-bound passengers to navigate, Maltzman said. And wheelchair obstacles, such as door thresholds, need to be a certain size to prevent leaking if a ship is flooded. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that there are no ADA guidelines for cruise ships yet. That may change soon. The Passenger Vessel Access Advisory Committee (PVAAC), an 18-month-old panel assigned by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Access Board, a governmental agency that oversees implementation of the ADA accessibility guidelines, is working on formulating ADA cruise ship guidelines. The final report is due in November, when the committee meets in Miami Beach and Port Everglades, Fla. The committee’s findings will be felt throughout the cruise industry, but operators of older ships will feel it most. Royal Caribbean spokesman Michael Sheehan says the primary difference between its newer and older ships is the number of rooms that are wheelchair-accessible; its new Voyager of the Seas has 26, while the 18-year-old Viking Serenade has four. Still, newer ships, according to passenger complaints, are not always up to date either. “It’s likely they will pass specific construction standards for newly constructed vessels and that the cruise lines will simply be required to make modifications that are readily achievable in existing vessels,” says Jeffrey Maltzman, a Miami maritime attorney with Kaye Rose & Maltzman, who represents cruise lines. Meanwhile, cruise lines argue they have been making efforts to keep their ships disabled-friendly, even before the Stevens case. David C. Van Buskirk, a paraplegic and co-owner of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based SE Unlimited Travel Consulting Services, has inspected 40 ships on behalf of disabled customers. He said that since 1993 he has seen an increased number of wheelchair-accessible cabins on major cruise lines. “There are a lot [of ships] which are not accessible,” Van Buskirk says. Van Buskirk worries that one result of a pro-ADA Supreme Court ruling is that cruise ships might pull out of U.S. ports. Ships “could very easily [sail] out of Nassau instead of Miami,” he says. Cruise industry officials discount the possibility of pulling out of U.S. ports and note that disabled passengers are a growing part of their market. At Royal Caribbean International Inc., for example, the number of guests requesting special assistance for a disability jumped from 16,500 in 1998 to nearly 23,000 in 1999. The company expects the number to reach about 30,000 this year. And at Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Lines, the number of passengers with special needs numbered about 4,000 in 1999. The company expect a total of 4,500 by the end of 2000. Maltzman, the maritime attorney, says the industry has had a “very good record” with regard to accessibility over the past five to 10 years. “Regardless of the application of the ADA,” he says, “the cruise industry is in the customer service business.”

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