WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a case brought by disabled passengers against Norwegian Cruise Line that could determine whether foreign-flagged ships are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Two separate U.S. appeals courts have issued opposing opinions on the case, which prompted the passengers attorneys to file for Supreme Court review last April.

In a routine order last week the court said it would hear the case, Douglas Spector, et al., v. Norwegian Cruise Line, which originated in Houston four years ago.

In their petition to the Supreme Court, the five plaintiffs said, This is no mere conflict between two circuits, noting that the two appeals courts that are in disagreement have jurisdiction over the ports from which nearly two-thirds of all United States cruises depart. As a result, this conflict renders uncertain the rights of millions of travelers with disabilities.

The case was originally brought before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in 2000, after the plaintiffs had taken separate NCL cruises out of Houston in 1998 and 1999.

The plaintiffs said in the Supreme Court petition that they had been required to pay higher fares to use one of about four accessible cabins and encountered architectural barriers that prevented them from enjoying many of the ships services, programs and benefits.

The district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in September 2002, relying on an earlier appeals court decision from the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, Stevens v. Premier Cruises Inc., which said the ADA does apply to foreign-flagged cruise ships, saying, among other things, it recognized that the relevant conduct occurred solely within the geographic boundaries of the United States.

But the court declined to mandate structural changes to the ships.

Both sides sought review in the U.S. Court of appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans -- the plaintiffs wanted structural changes made to the ships, while NCL challenged the ruling that the ADA applied to its foreign-flagged ships. The appeals court overturned the district courts decision in January, saying the ADA does not apply to foreign-flagged vessels.

Theres a clear split, Rex Burch, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said of the earlier 11th Circuit and the current Fifth Circuit rulings.

Burch said he expected the Supreme Court to review the case in early 2005 and issue a decision by June.

NCL said in a statement that accessibility issues are very important to both cruise vacation providers and to the traveling public, adding that inconsistent court decisions around the country on this subject are confusing.

The line added it was proud of its record in accommodating passengers with disabilities.

David George, another of the plaintiffs attorneys, said the Supreme Court ruling would be only the first step in the fight for an ADA-compliant cruise industry. If the court does rule in the plaintiffs favor, he said, We go back to the trial court and we prove whether or not [NCL is] ADA compliant.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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