On Oct. 15, the Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari in Don Caldwell, et al. v. St. Charles Gaming Company d/b/a Isle of Capri Casino – Lake Charles, a case that will have significant implications for the riverboat gaming industry. At issue is whether St. Charles Gaming’s Grand Palais Casino is a “vessel” subject to federal maritime law such that the employees who work on it are covered by the Jones Act or alternatively, the Louisiana Worker’s Compensation Act.
Prior to March 24, 2001, the Grand Palais Casino sailed periodically as then required by Louisiana law to conduct gaming operations. Since March 2001, following a change in state gaming law, the Grand Palais casino has remained permanently moored at its location in Westlake, Louisiana. Caldwell, an employee who worked on the casino during the day but ate off of it and returned home every evening, alleges he was injured on the casino and sued claiming seaman status.
In 2017, a five-judge panel of the Third Circuit held that this same Grand Palais Casino was not a vessel. Benoit v. St. Charles Gaming Company, LLC. Previously, in 2011 and 2012, the Third Circuit also held that nearly identical casinos were not vessels. Breaux v. St. Charles Gaming Co; Lemelle v. St. Charles Gaming Co. But on July 3, 2019, the en banc Third Circuit reversed itself and held that the Grand Palais Casino was a vessel.
Significantly, 1 U.S.C. § 3 provides that a vessel is a watercraft “used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” The United States Supreme Court has clarified that “a watercraft is not ‘capable of being used’ for maritime transport in any meaningful sense if it has been permanently moored or otherwise rendered practically incapable of transportation or movement.” Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida. Yet the Louisiana Third Circuit determined the Grand Palais Casino was a vessel based upon the Louisiana Gaming Control’s definition of “riverboat,” even though it had not sailed for more than eighteen years.
The Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision on this issue of federal maritime law will have a significant impact on the riverboat gaming industry in Louisiana and elsewhere because it impacts the classification of casino workers as to whether state law or federal law governs. The Louisiana Casino Association filed an amicus brief in support of St. Charles Gaming’s writ application.
Oral argument is expected early next year.