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Declaring they’ve negotiated a better deal for the nation’s disabled, the U.S. Justice Department and the Florida attorney general’s office have withdrawn their unprecedented objections to a proposed settlement of a class action suit alleging discrimination by Carnival Corp. of Miami. The reworded agreement, the Justice Department says in court papers filed last month, “substantially enhances the overall fairness of the proposed class-action settlement agreement to all class members.” The deal between Carnival and Miami Beach’s Access Now, which U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno of Miami could approve this week, is a groundbreaker for the cruise industry. It calls for Carnival to spend $7 million to retrofit 15 Carnival brand ships over the next two years to make them more accessible to people in wheelchairs by doing things like installing ramps and expanding restrooms. Disability rights advocates, who initially sued the Carnival subsidiary Cunard last year but soon chose to focus on the Carnival brand itself, hope the settlement becomes a blueprint for future settlements in the cruise industry — both with other Carnival brands like Holland-America and Cunard, as well as ships owned by competitors like Royal Caribbean and Disney. “With Carnival now agreeing to comply with the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], it sets a bar and a standard for all the other cruise ships that are foreign flags, and we’ll see how all of them react as we meet them for mediations,” says Access Now president Edward Resnick. “I hope they will step up and recognize their responsibility.” Officials in the Justice Department’s Disability Rights Section did not respond to a request for comment. Allison K. Bethel, director of civil rights in the Fort Lauderdale office of the Florida attorney general’s office, says the changes resolve the state’s “most troublesome” concern by making it clear that possible future claims against Carnival based on state law can legally be asserted in court. “I think this provides some relief to disabled people, so it’s a good first step,” says Bethel. “There are no firm federal regulations now, so as these regulations get published and more is studied we will learn what more needs to be done, and should be done, to make these ships completely accessible.” Resnick, a retired attorney who’s been confined to a wheelchair since 1954, is co-plaintiff with Access Now in hundreds of private ADA enforcement cases against companies big and small in federal and state courts in South Florida. Some are pending, but most have been settled before trial with deals calling for certain modifications and the payment to Access Now’s lawyers of sizable attorneys’ fees. In the Carnival case alone, the settlement provides for fees and costs to plaintiffs’ lawyers of $166,000. Access Now, which claims 500 members, currently has lawsuits pending against Royal Caribbean, its subsidiary Celebrity Cruises, Carnival subsidiary Cunard Ltd., and Norwegian Cruise Lines, Resnick says. Carnival’s principal benefit from the deal, besides what its attorney Thomas Julin describes as the “satisfaction of doing the right thing,” is protection from existing or competing claims brought by other disabled groups, as well as a shield against many possible future claims. “They all would be barred if this is approved by the judge,” says Julin. That’s because those current and potential litigants are all covered by the class established in Access Now’s case. (Unlike class actions in which monetary damages are sought, there is no opportunity for class members to opt out of the case.) And, in fact, that’s why the Justice Department and the attorney general’s office intervened in the first place. Their decision, in turn, to resolve the Carnival case comes after the settlement was modified in a few key places to satisfy their objections. In August, similar federal and state objections led Judge Moreno to kill another proposed settlement between Access Now and the corporate parent of Lord & Taylor, the May Department Stores Co. That case is now proceeding to trial. Previously, Justice Department lawyers contended Access Now’s deal with Carnival was a “disservice” to millions of disabled across the United States because its terms were overly generous to Carnival, granting the cruise giant a de facto “license to discriminate against future” disabled passengers in perpetuity. For example, the original settlement contains what the government alleged were sweeping releases from liability for Carnival. The reworked deal contains four modifications demanded by the government to limit its scope. Most significant, perhaps, is a sunset clause that limits the agreement to ships built before November 2008, “thereby ensuring that class members will be able to benefit from any regulatory benefits conferred by future regulations governing cruise ships,” court papers say. Another change narrows the release of liability for Carnival “so that there is a tighter fit between the benefits being conferred by the agreement, i.e., physical barrier removal, and the scope of claims being released.” The government had been concerned the original settlement proposal protected the wheelchair bound, for example, by sacrificing the rights of the less access-restricted disabled, like the blind or hearing impaired, to seek future redress. Likewise, the new settlement specifically preserves the right of the disabled to file future claims against Carnival under state laws. And it makes clear that class members retain the right to file ADA lawsuits against Carnival with federal or state authorities, and that those authorities won’t be prevented from investigating or remedying those complaints.

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