The Justice Department pushes for compliance in a paralyzed woman's case against a Bahamas-registered ship.
Tammy Stevens checked and rechecked about a dozen times. She was assured the cruise ship she would board in her wheelchair for a special Mother's Day treat would accommodate her.
But after the Jacksonville zoo development manager got two buckets to replace the inaccessible bathroom, was excluded from the evacuation drill and was shut out of excursions on Premier Cruises' Big Red Boat, she got angry.
Back on shore, she sued. A federal district judge in Miami threw out the case, ruling the Americans With Disabilities Act doesn't apply to foreign flag cruise ships _ the bulk of the ships visiting U.S. ports.
On appeal, the Justice Department startled the industry by setting up a test case, saying in a friend-of-the-court brief that the ADA does in fact apply, and Premier Cruises must comply.
"It's a pretty hot issue," said Elaine Ostroff, founder of Adaptive Environments in Boston, one of 10 government-funded centers offering technical assistance for ADA compliance. "It's going to change the way the industry is operating."
Disability rights advocates believe the cruise industry's floating hotels should be treated under the ADA as a public accommodation, like restaurants, supermarkets and other businesses that offer services to the public.
The 1990 law mandates the removal of architectural barriers when it can be accomplished without much difficulty or expense.
"I don't expect this world to be rebuilt for me, but don't tell me one thing and do something else," said Stevens, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 1979 auto accident.
She was excited when Premier advertised a wheelchair-accessible cruise and checked with her travel agent and the cruise line before booking the four-day trip from Port Canaveral at a cost above the advertised price. But on board the 34-year-old ship last year, one humiliation followed another.
"My sister and my mother had to physically pick me up, put me onto the commode, pick me up and put me into the shower. That's not cool," said the 35-year-old woman.
Premier attorney Gary Davidson contends the Justice Department is taking an unreasonable position with costly consequences by claiming the ADA applies when the Department of Transportation has not proposed any rules for compliance.
"Ships are by their very nature a very different type of animal than an office building," he said. "We're not here just talking about throwing down a couple of concrete slabs and building a rampway."
Besides, the design and construction of cruise ships have always been policed by flag states, the nations where ships are registered, Davidson said. Premier's ship is registered in the Bahamas.
"Now you have a situation where, according to the Department of Justice, it is going to be the port state, in this case the United States, dictating to each and every flag state . . . how those vessels that call on our ports are going to be designed," Davidson said.
In large part, cruise ships are not subject to U.S. laws and regulation. But there are exceptions. Casino gambling is legal only in international waters, and cruise lines don't serve drinks to minors.
By treaty, the International Maritime Organization regulates cruise ship safety with a set of common rules called Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS. But the U.S. Coast Guard inspects and grades cruise ships for safety.
Until now, the Justice Department has taken "a very measured, restrained approach" to ADA interpretations, said Sid Wolinsky, co-director of Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit center for disability-related lawsuits.
With Justice on Stevens' side, Wolinsky said, it means the federal government has "looked at it long and hard."
The International Council of Cruise Lines, which represents 17 lines, said members are striving to make their ships as accessible as possible, but they don't believe they are legally bound by the ADA at this time because no access rules have been issued.
Whether the ADA applies to them, some cruises lines try to be accommodating. Industry-leading Carnival Corp. builds its ships with a limited number of cabins with wider doorways, no lips in the bathroom doorway and no shower divider in the bathroom.
That makes good business sense to Wolinsky. "Outfits like Premier Cruises that don't recognize this are shooting themselves in the foot," he said.
The appeal is before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which is expected to hear oral arguments. A three-judge panel could address the broad issue of cruise ship access or consider it on narrow grounds, such as whether Stevens has legal standing to sue.
If the court skirts the broad issue, other cases will address it head on.