Louisiana Supreme Court Reverses Third Circuit Vessel Status in Caldwell v. St. Charles Gaming Company

In July 2019, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal garnered significant attention with its decision in Caldwell v. St. Charles Gaming Company, 18-868, 18-915 (La. App. 3 Cir. 7/03/19); 279 So.3d 940. The 10-2 majority, in an opinion authored by Judge Saunders, held that the riverboat casino, The Grand Palais, was a vessel under the general maritime law.

In October 2019, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted the defendant’s writ to review the Third Circuit’s decision. After reviewing prior Third Circuit precedent and analyzing relevant United States Supreme Court decisions on vessel status, the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit and concluded that the Grand Palais was not a vessel.

Retired Judge James Boddie Jr., sitting ad hoc for Justice Clark, was particularly persuaded by the Third Circuit’s reasoning in a prior riverboat casino case, Breaux v. St. Charles Gaming Company, Inc.  Boddie also highlighted analysis from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co. that made clear that structures may lose their character as vessels if they have been withdrawn from the water for extended periods of time. Boddie also noted that although Stewart was cited below for the proposition that a craft capable for use in maritime transportation is a vessel, he pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lozman decision refined that language, “explaining that the statutory definition of a vessel may or may not apply when the craft has some other primary purpose.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision in Caldwell is a significant one that proponents of a narrow definition of vessel, concerned about the implications of the Third Circuit’s decision, will welcome as a necessary course correction.