Louisiana Third Circuit Changes Course on Vessel Status of Riverboat Casinos

The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal recently addressed an issue it has confronted a number of times in the past: whether a riverboat casino is a vessel.

The issue came before the Court in Caldwell v. St. Charles Gaming Company on supervisory writs after the trial court denied cross motions for summary judgment on seaman and vessel status. Caldwell, an employee of St. Charles Gaming (”SCG”), filed suit under the Jones Act after he was injured at work. SCG sought a ruling that Caldwell was not a Jones Act seaman and Caldwell sought a ruling that the Grand Palais, SCG’s riverboat casino, was a vessel for purposes of the Jones Act.

The Defense’s argument

SCG argued that the court was bound by its 2017 decision in Benoit v. St. Charles Gaming Company, Inc. in which the Third Circuit held that the Grand Palais was not a vessel under the general maritime law. Judge Saunders, the author of the majority opinion, pointed to his dissent in Benoit in which he reasoned that the Grand Palais was designed for navigation, was capable of navigation, and had been used in navigation. He argued in dissent that frequency of navigation was not part of the equation.

The Plaintiff’s Argument

Notwithstanding the decision in Benoit, Caldwell argued that SCG spent considerable time and money ensuring that the Grand Palais remained capable of navigation as required by Louisiana statute. Although it had ceased daily excursions in 2001, it remained capable of navigation at the time of Caldwell’s injury and could be made ready to sail in thirty minutes.

Caldwell argued that the Benoit court’s finding that the vessel had been indefinitely moored was not the standard created the United States Supreme Court in Stewart v. Dutra. In Stewart, the Court looked to the Rules of Construction Act, 1 U.S.C. Sec. 3, which defines a vessel as “every description of water-craft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

Caldwell also cited to the Third Circuit’s decision in Breaux v. St. Charles Gaming Co. where a patron was injured on the M/V Crown, a floating casino. The trial court found that there was maritime jurisdiction but the Third Circuit reversed, finding that the M/V Crown was not a vessel. The Breaux decision was based on federal jurisprudence that found that such casinos were outside the definition of vessels in navigation.

Judge Saunders, writing in dissent, disagreed with the majority and suggested that creating a bright-line rule as to all permanently moored casinos did not fit the methodology of Stewart. Judge Saunders cited to 1 U.S.C. Sec. 3 and found fault with the majority’s reliance on the U.S. Fifth Circuit’s decision in De La Rosa v. St. Charles Gaming (which the Breaux plaintiffs argued had an insufficiently developed record) rather than focusing on the record before it.

Caldwell also cited Lemelle v. St. Charles Gaming Co., Inc. in which a riverboat casino patron was injured and filed suit under the general maritime law. The trial court found that the riverboat casino was a vessel but the Third Circuit reversed. Judge Thibodeaux dissented. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari, vacated the judgment, and remanded the case to the Third Circuit for further consideration in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s vessel status decision in Lozman v. Riviera Beach. Caldwell argued that the Louisiana Supreme Court’s actions were a vindication Judge Thibodeaux’s dissent.

Judge Thibodaux’s Dissent

In his dissent in Lemelle, Judge Thibodaux reasoned that 1 U.S.C. Sec. 3 was the primary and binding authority on the court and that the jurisprudence, a secondary and non-binding authority in Louisiana, provided the considerations of practicality to the statutory test. Judge Thibodaux was of the opinion that the court’s focus, as directed by Stewart, should be on whether the M/V Crown had been rendered practically incapable of transportation or movement. Although use as a means of transportation may be theoretical, the Crown was still capable of being so used. The fact that the Crown had been moored to the dock since 2001 was of little consequence.

Judge Thibodaux also distinguished the Third Circuit’s majority decision in Breaux in that it relied heavily on the U.S. Fifth Circuit’s decision in De La Rosa which, he argued, applied the incorrect test for determining vessel status.

Judge Thibodaux pointed to the fact that the Crown’s maintenance of a captain and crew, the constant maintenance of navigational tools and equipment, and the regular operation of the engines all pointed to the finding that it was capable of being used as a means of transportation.

The Court’s Findings

Turning to the case before the court, Judge Saunders ultimately found that the Grand Palais was, at one point, a vessel that had never been disabled, removed from the water, or otherwise taken out of navigation. Further, SCG worked diligently to keep the Grand Palais fully operational as required by statute. Based on his review of the cases discussed, Judge Saunders concluded that the Grand Palais was a vessel at the time of Caldwell’s accident, granted Caldwell’s writ, and granted summary judgment finding that Caldwell was a seaman.