By Stephen C. Hanemann

Although the riverboat casino Grand Palais was originally designed to transport people over water, and did so until 2001, and is theoretically capable of navigation, the Louisiana Supreme Court has determined that it is no longer a vessel in navigation. Don Caldwell v. St. Charles Gaming Co., 2019-1238 (La. 1/29/20),             So.3d _____. The Court’s ruling emphasized changes in the riverboat’s physical characteristics, purpose, and function – the craft having been moored for nearly 15 years. Accordingly, the injured riverboat technician employed by the Grand Palais was not entitled to seaman status as he was not employed on a vessel in navigation.

Plaintiff claimed to have sustained injury on April 9, 2015 when the gangway attached to the Grand Palais riverboat casino collapsed. He filed a petition for damages alleging that the riverboat was a vessel under General Maritime Law and that he was a seaman under the Jones Act. The 14th Judicial District Court for the Parish of Calcasieu denied plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the issue of seaman status finding that the Grand Palais casino was not a vessel at time of his incident. The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed,finding the riverboat was a vessel at the time of the incident and conferred seaman status upon plaintiff. Prior to its decision in this case, the Third Circuit had uniformly held that riverboat casinos permanently moored were not vessels. See Breaux v. St. Charles Gaming Co., Inc., 10-1349, 11-128 (La. App. 3 Cir. 6/22/2011), 68 So.3d 684; Lemelle v. St. Charles Gaming Co., 11-255 (La. App. 3 Cir. 1/4/12), 118 So. 3d 1, writ denied, 12-339 (La. 4/27/12); and Benoit v. St. Charles Gaming, Co., LLC, 17-101 (La. App. 3 Cir 11/8/17), 230 So. 3d 997, writ denied, 17-2501 (La. 2/2/18), 233 So.3d 615, cert denied, ___ U.S. , 139 S.Ct. 104, 202 L. Ed 2d 29 (2018). Not only did the appellate court’s decision conflict with three of its prior decisions, but it also contrasted with the U.S. Fifth Circuit’s holding that a moored riverboat casino is not a vessel in navigation under Federal maritime Law. See De La Rosa v. St. Charles Gaming Co., 474 F.3d 185 (5th Cir. 2006).

The Grand Palais was built as a riverboat casino and designed to sail on inland waterways of the United States and the state of Louisiana. At the time of plaintiff’s incident the riverboat was safely afloat, had not been disabled, removed from the water, sunk to the bottom of a waterway, or enclosed in a coffer dam. In fact, the owners of the riverboat casino worked diligently to maintain it in a fully operational condition as required by applicable law. Id. See also, La. R.S. § 27:44. The riverboat casino maintained a valid Certificate of Inspection issued by the United States Coast Guard, which permitted it to carry passengers on designated waterways within the State of Louisiana. Despite this, the Grand Palais had been moored at the same location for over 14 years, and had not navigated since March 24, 2001. The riverboat’s shore-side-utility lines, electrical supply, water, sewerage, cable television, telephone, and internet services had not been disconnected since its last navigation. Plaintiff had worked on the riverboat since 2004, but had never sailed aboard it. His onboard duties included chipping, grinding, and painting. Other responsibilities included fire team and rescue-boat.

Owners of the riverboat argued that its status as a vessel does not determine plaintiff’s status as a seaman for admiralty jurisdiction. Defendants insisted that plaintiff must also prove the vessel is in navigation and that his employment has a substantial connection to navigation, thereby regularly exposing him to the perils of the sea. Plaintiff contended that the riverboat remained capable of navigation and was, therefore, a vessel.

The Louisiana Supreme Court recognized that while the vessel was theoretically capable of navigation, it had been indefinitely moored for a period of over 14 years and was not being used for the purpose of maritime transportation. Focusing on the practical and not theoretical capabilities of navigating, in observance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co., 543 U.S. 481 (2005) and Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla., 568 U.S. 115 (2013), the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed that the statutory definition of a vessel may not apply when the craft has some other primary purpose, and found that the riverboat’s primary purpose was dockside gambling. It also found that a side of the riverboat had been integrated into the adjacent land-based pavilion and hotel, and would require some modifications to return to service as a navigable vessel. Consequently, even though the Supreme Court acknowledged that the riverboat was designed to transport people over water and was theoretically capable of navigation, due to its changes in physical characteristics and primary purpose, coupled with the fact that it had been moored for a decade and a half, it determined that the Grand Palais was no longer a vessel used in marine transportation.

In denying plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and dismissing his claims for seaman status under General Maritime Law, the Louisiana Supreme Court did not precisely say that the riverboat casino, Grand Palais, was not a vessel (statutorily or otherwise), merely that it was no longer a vessel used in maritime transportation.