Louisiana Court of Appeal: Riverboat Casino Connected to Dock is “Vessel” Under Maritime Law

On July 3, 2019, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles rendered  judgement on a dispute over the status of riverboat casinos as “vessels.”  This is important because the plaintiff, who sustained injuries while operating a scissor lift on a riverboat casino moored in  Lake Charles, filed his suit under the Jones Act. The Jones Act provides special privileges, protections, and avenues of recovery to injured seamen. The defendant, the owner of the floating casino, filed a motion for summary judgement alleging that the plaintiff is not a Jones Act seaman because he had no connection to a vessel in navigation that was substantial in nature and he was never exposed to the dangers of the sea. The plaintiff filed a cross motion in reply. Both motions were denied by the trial court, and the court of appeal agreed to hear the case on supervisory writs.

The defendant argued that the trial court failed to follow the court of appeal’s controlling precedent from a previous case that held riverboat casinos are not vessels and their workers are not Jones Act seamen. In the present matter, the court of appeal held differently, finding that the U.S. Supreme Court’s test for vessel status in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla., 568 U.S. 115, 133 S.Ct. 735 (2013), mandates that a river boat casino must be considered a vessel. Lozman states that vessel status centers on whether the structure is capable of being used as a means of transportation on water and a reasonable observer “looking to the structure’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.”

The court reasoned that the riverboat the plaintiff worked on had not been removed from navigation, laid up, or mothballed. Also, the defendant spends considerable time and expense to ensure the riverboat remains capable of operation per the requirements of La.R.S. 27:44. The riverboat is connected to the dock by temporary connections and gangways designed to be lifted and retracted. It could be made ready to sail in thirty minutes, per evidence in the record.

The court held the amount of time spent moored and docked in one location is not relevant to the ability of a watercraft to be a vessel able to set sail. Also, a watercraft that is capable of transportation, but has been docked and not removed from navigation, is a vessel in navigation for the purposes of maritime law. The court of appeal held the casino is a vessel and that the plaintiff is a Jones Act seaman. It remains to be seen whether the defendant will seek further review in the Louisiana Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court.