Louisiana Riverboat Casino Moored for 14 Years is No Longer a Vessel in Navigation Under the General Maritime Law

In Caldwell v. St. Charles Gaming Company, 2019-01238 (La.1/2/2020), the Louisiana Supreme Court held that an employee injured in 2015 on the Grand Palais Riverboat casino in Westlake, Louisiana, was not a seaman under the Jones Act because the riverboat casino was no longer a vessel in navigation for purposes of the general maritime law.

In 2001, the Grand Palais Riverboat casino was moored in Westlake, Louisiana, by nylon mooring lines and steel wire cables, with its primary purpose being dockside gambling.  The riverboat casino has not moved since being moored, is serviced by shore-side utility lines that have not been disconnected since 2001, and the casino computer system is located on land.

After an injured riverboat technician filed suit under the Jones Act, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the injured employee was a Jones Act seaman.  The critical factual issue was whether the riverboat casino was a vessel in navigation.  The trial court denied the motions.

The Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal, sitting en banc, held in a 10-2 decision that the riverboat casino was a vessel because it was designed for navigation, was capable of navigation, and had been used in navigation.  In granting the injured employee’s motion for summary judgment, the court of appeal found that the frequency of the riverboat’s navigation was not a factor.

The Louisiana Supreme Court granted the writ and reversed the judgment of the court of appeal and granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Relying on language from the United States Supreme Court’s opinions in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, 568 U.S. 115, 124, 133 S.Ct. 735, 742 (2013) and Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 496, 125 S.Ct. 118 (2005), the Louisiana Supreme Court reasoned that a watercraft’s use as a means of transportation on water must be practical and not merely theoretical. The Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that although the riverboat was designed to transport people over water, and was theoretically capable of navigation, it was no longer a vessel used in maritime transportation because of the changes to its physical characteristics, purpose, and function spanning nearly a decade and a half.