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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sent a lifeboat to California lawyers arguing that a luxury cruise line must accommodate disabled passengers. A suit filed by Oakland, Calif.’s Disability Rights Advocates was kept afloat by a high court opinion in a similar case that said that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to foreign-registered cruise ships. “The victory is that the Supreme Court held that the ADA applies, so we’re operating within the framework of the ADA,” said Kevin Knestrick, a DRA lawyer representing plaintiff Dorene Giacopini. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a dismissal of Giacopini v. Crystal Cruise Line, 04-1089, until an outcome to the Supreme Court case was determined. The opinion in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line, 05 C.D.O.S. 4739, is vague enough that it leaves considerable water in the bilge of DRA’s argument that cruise ships must make physical accommodations for the disabled. How the ADA applies to foreign-flagged ships is unclear, said Knestrick and Walter Johnson, the Nixon Peabody partner representing Crystal Cruises, whose ships are registered in the Bahamas. While the Supreme Court ruling says cruise lines’ policies may not discriminate, Johnson said, it is ambiguous on whether ships need to make physical accommodations. “The problem for Crystal, and I think most cruise lines, is structural changes,” he said. In a complaint filed in the Northern District of California last year, Giacopini says what she remembered best about her “Alaskan Memories” cruise was wheelchair-unfriendly corridors, wholly inaccessible decks and a nasty fall incurred when she attempted to negotiate an area where the crew had removed a ramp. Giacopini said she had complained about the ramp’s absence the previous day. The lack of accessibility, Giacopini argued, violates federal law. Northern District of California Judge Maxine Chesney disagreed. She marooned the case in June 2004, citing the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the Norwegian Cruise Lines case — which said the ADA does not cover foreign-flagged ships — in dismissing it. Knestrick appealed that decision, and the 9th Circuit stayed the case, awaiting the Supreme Court decision. He and Johnson said they expect the 9th Circuit to remand the case to the trial court. Johnson added that he wasn’t disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling since he may still argue that the ADA doesn’t require ships to make structural changes. “We’re perfectly happy with the decision, really,” he said. This isn’t the first such suit for Giacopini. The wheelchair user was also represented by DRA in a 1995 class action against Enterprise Rent-A-Car. She argued that wheelchair users were forced to pay more than non-wheelchair users. The case settled in 2002.

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