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Ruling Clears up Uncertainty Over Whether Riverboat Casino Is a "Vessel"

January 30, 2020

A decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court will bring stability to the riverboat gaming industry after clearing up uncertainty over the casinos’ “vessel” status.

On Jan. 29, the Court held that St. Charles Gaming’s Grand Palais Casino is not a “vessel” subject to federal maritime law. This ruling makes clear that employees who work on the casino are covered by the Louisiana Worker’s Compensation Act rather than the federal Jones Act. This decision will have significant implications for the riverboat gaming industry.

Prior to March 24, 2001, the Grand Palais Casino sailed periodically as then required by Louisiana law to conduct gaming operations. Following a change in state gaming law in March 2001, the Grand Palais Casino has remained permanently moored at its location in Westlake, La. Caldwell, an employee who worked on the casino, alleges he was injured on the casino and sued claiming seaman status. In July 2019, the en banc Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the Grand Palais Casino was a vessel subject to federal maritime law and that plaintiff Caldwell was a seaman entitled to the protections of the Jones Act.

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, observing that its holding marked a “significant change in the jurisprudence and conflicts with prior state and federal jurisprudence.” The Louisiana Supreme Court explained:

While we acknowledge the precedents from the [United States] Supreme Court have created some latitude in determining whether a craft is a vessel, both Stewart and Lozman make it clear that the question of the “watercraft’s use ‘as a means of transportation on water’ is . . . practical,” and not “merely . . . theoretical.” Following our de novo review of the record, we conclude that although the Grand Palais was originally designed to transport people over water, and theoretically is capable of navigation, as a result of the changes to its physical characteristics, purpose, and function spanning nearly a decade and a half, it is no longer a vessel used in maritime transportation.

The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that any analysis of vessel status must consider the “primary purpose” of the craft. Here, the primary purpose of the Grand Palais Casino – and other permanently moored riverboat casinos like it – is dockside gambling.

By removing the uncertainty surrounding the classification of casino workers, Don Caldwell v. St. Charles Gaming Company, 2019-CC-01238, lends stability to the riverboat gaming industry in Louisiana and elsewhere.

St. Charles Gaming is represented by Marty McLeod, Alston Johnson and Turk Clay.