When Douglas Spector, who uses a motorized wheelchair because of a spinal tumor, set off for a five-day cruise from Houston in 1998 aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, he quickly realized the ship wasn't equipped to handle the needs of the handicapped. The ship's restaurants, restrooms and swimming pool, he alleges, had steps designed to keep water sealed out of the interior decks, but didn't have ramps. And he claims the cruise line charged him $900 in extra fees for a handicapped-accessible cabin.
Along with other disabled passengers, he filed a class action suit against Norwegian two years later, and the ensuing legal firestorm went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Douglas Spector et al. v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd.
"This isn't an area where you would expect Congress to have made some special statement if it wanted to apply a law to foreign flag vessels because it doesn't deal with the internal affairs of the ship," Goldstein says. "It deals with American customers buying tickets in the U.S., for travel to and from the U.S., from a company that's based in the U.S. So it seems as a common sense matter, totally obvious that Congress would have intended persons with disabilities to be covered."
Maybe the United States doesn't rule the world after all.