Riverboat Casino is Not a “Vessel” Under New Orleans Maritime Law
Written by Kristin Lausten
General maritime law in New Orleans and in Louisiana applies only to “vessels.” Congress has defined “vessel” as “every description of water-craft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” See 1 U.S.C. § 3. According to longstanding US Supreme Court case law, a “vessel” must be “practically capable” of water travel and that a vessel undergoing overhaul is not a “vessel” for purposes of maritime law. See West v. United States, 361 U.S. 118 (1959).
One might then ask: What about a riverboat casino? Is that a “vessel” within the meaning of general maritime law? A recent Louisiana Court of Appeals case says “no.” See Benoit v. St. Charles Gaming Company, Inc., No. 17-101 (La. App. 3rd Circuit November 8, 2017). It should be noted, however, that there was a concise dissent, which stated in its entirety:
“The riverboat was designed for navigation. It is capable of navigation. It has been used in navigation. Frequency of navigation is simply not part of the equation. The riverboat is a vessel. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.”
Defending Louisiana Maritime Cases: The Backstory
Benoit v. St. Charles Gaming Co., Inc. is a personal injury case. The defendant, St. Charles Gaming Co., Inc. operates the Grand Palais Casino (“the Grand Palais”), a riverboat casino, moored in Lake Charles. The plaintiff, Charles Benoit, was a “deckhand” on the Grand Palais and was injured in 2013 when a coworker fell from a ladder onto him.
Benoit and his wife sued St. Charles, alleging:
- That the Grand Palais is a vessel under general maritime law
- That he is a seaman and member of the Grand Palais’s crew under the Jones Act — 46 U.S.C. § 30104 et seq.
- That the Grand Palais was unseaworthy under general maritime law and
- That St. Charles owes him maintenance and cure, attorney fees, and damages as result of the injuries he suffered
In response, the defendant argued that the Grand Palais was built as a riverboat casino and is not a “vessel” within the meaning of general maritime law and the Jones Act. The riverboat was built in conformity with Louisiana law which authorize gaming activities to be conducted on riverboat casinos on certain designated waterways. See La. Rev. Stat. §§ 27:41-113 & 27:65.
Summary judgment was granted in favor of Benoit. The trial court found the Grand Palais was a “vessel” and, thus, Benoit was a “seaman” entitled to the protections of general maritime law and the Jones Act. For reasons discussed below, the Court of Appeals reversed and entered judgment for the defendant.
Defending Louisiana Maritime Cases: When a Riverboat Is Not a Boat
The Court of Appeals acknowledged that the Grand Palais had many features that would make it fit within the definition of “vessel.” The Grand Palais was moored on water, was capable of traversing the water if need be, employed two captains and deckhands, had functioning engines that were occasionally fired to adjust the casino in its moorings, the captains monitored navigation radios, and similar facts. Despite the foregoing, the Court of Appeals held that the Grand Palais was not a “vessel” primarily for these reasons:
- The Grand Palais had not moved since March 24, 2001
- Necessary services for the Grand Palais’ operation as a casino are provided via land-based utility lines — electricity, water, telephone service, sewage, cable television, internet services, etc.
- The Grand Palais’ computer systems for gaming activities and slot machines are located on land
- Guests enter the Grand Palais from shore via a large steel pavilion located on land and the pavilion is an integral part of the casino
- When the engines are operated, they only run for about 30 minutes
- Since 2001, the Grand Palais has never been engaged in maritime activities
- The purpose of the Grand Palais has been and is to be a gaming and gambling facility
For these reasons, the court of appeals held the Grand Palais was not a vessel. Benoit’s claims were dismissed. But, note, the case was close. There was the brief dissent quoted above and the third judge wrote a concurring opinion.
Louisiana Maritime Defense: Contact New Orleans Defense Attorney Kristin M. Lausten
When defending maritime and Jones Act cases, it is important for defense counsel to use all the available arguments. Anytime a vessel is being overhauled or repaired, the “status” of the vessel may provide a valuable defense.
If you need additional information, contact Louisiana defense attorney Kristin M. Lausten. Ms. Lausten has experience in maritime law and defends complex tort litigation in both state and federal courts. She can be contacted at 504.377.6585 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Kristin M. Lausten
This article is provided as an educational service for general informational purposes only. The material does not constitute legal advice or rendering of professional services.