Marine & Energy Alert: Court Decides Floating Riverboat Casino is Not a Vessel; Denies Employee Jones Act Seaman Status

November 21, 2017

The Louisiana Court of Appeal for the Third Circuit has decided that a floating riverboat casino is not a vessel within the meaning of the general maritime law, and that an employee injured while working at that casino does not qualify as a Jones Act seaman. In so doing, the appellate court has reaffirmed a conclusion it previously reached regarding an almost identical floating riverboat casino in Lemelle v. St. Charles Gaming Company, Inc., 2011-255 (La. App. 3 Cir. 1/4/12), 118 So. 3d 1, before that decision was vacated and remanded by the United States Supreme Court for further consideration in light of the decision reached regarding vessel status in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, 133 S. Ct. 735 (2013).

In this instance, the plaintiff, Carl Benoit, was employed by St. Charles Gaming at the Grand Palais Casino in Westlake, Louisiana. The Grand Palais was built to navigate, and prior to 2001, it was required by Louisiana law to sail in order to continue conducting gaming operations. In 2001, the law changed, and since that time, floating casinos have been required to remain permanently docked in order to maintain their gaming licenses.

Benoit was injured while performing maintenance on the gaming floor of the Grand Palais in 2013. By that point, the floating casino structure had not moved for over a decade.

At the district court, St. Charles Gaming moved for summary judgment asking the district court to dismiss Benoit’s general maritime law and the Jones Act claims, arguing that the Grand Palais could not be considered a vessel for purposes of general maritime law, much less a vessel in navigation with which Benoit had a connection for purposes of asserting a Jones Act claim. Benoit filed a cross motion on the same issues. The district court concluded that in light of Lozman, the casino was a vessel and that, therefore, Benoit was a Jones Act seaman.

The Lozman Court held that the "vessel" analysis must focus on whether the floating structure is capable of being used "as a means of transportation on water" in a practical, rather than theoretical, sense. The Court held that a floating structure is not a vessel for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction "unless a reasonable observer, looking to [its] physical characteristics and activities would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water."

In so doing, the Lozman Court recognized that "it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the use of a human ‘contrivance’ without some consideration of human purposes,"and that "all criteria based on ‘purpose’" should be considered.

The Louisiana Third Circuit determined that "[t]he Grand Palais' primary purpose is dockside gambling," and found that "although the Grand Palais was originally designed to transport people over water ... as a result of the changes to its physical characteristics, its purpose, and its actual function over the past sixteen years, it is no longer a vessel."

Brian Wallace, Marty McLeod and Meredith Blanque represented St. Charles Gaming. The case is Carl J. Benoit and Patricia F. Benoit v. St. Charles Gaming Company, Inc., No. 2017-101.

A link to the Louisiana Third Circuit’s Benoit decision is attached here.