River Boat Casino Injury: Is it a Maritime Issue?

Gambling is one of the many recreational activities that the state of Louisiana has to offer. One of the more popular ways to gamble in Louisiana, is on the river boat casinos. However, in a recent Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal decision, the court explored whether or not incidents such as personal injury that occur on these river boat casinos qualify under maritime law as a result of being “in navigation.” This issue presents an interesting dilemma in classification, especially after the Louisiana legislature in 2001 amended the gambling laws so as to prohibit gambling boats in Lake Charles from conducting cruises or excursions. Thus, the question becomes: are these river boat casinos in navigation and thus governed by maritime law?

The facts of the case include a young woman who visited a river boat casino on Lake Charles to enjoy gambling in addition to the complimentary food and drinks. However, she became intoxicated and at 4 a.m., she fell from a stairway onto the ground below, suffering serious injuries. According to protocall, her blood alcohol content was measured at 0.33%. Initially, the young woman pursued damages under Louisiana law, however, Louisiana Revised Statute 9:2800.1 provides:

“The legislature finds and declares that the consumption of intoxicating beverages, rather than the sale or serving or furnishing of such beverages, is the proximate cause of any injury, including death and property damage, inflicted by an intoxicated person upon himself or upon another person.”

In an effort to circumvent Louisiana’s statute prohibiting liability in the case of an intoxicated individual, the young woman alleged that her cause of action was instead, controlled by federal maritime law which contains no similar provision barring the type of claims she was asserting. Her reasoning for alleging a federal maritime claim, was that her fall occurred on a permanently moored floating casino, a watercraft she contends is a vessel in navigation for purposes of general maritime law. The trial court did not explore the definition of “navigation,” nor the actual status of the casino, but instead, agreed, finding the plaintiff’s claims did fall within admiralty jurisdiction. It was not until the defendant river boat casino company files an appeal that the actual status of the boat was taken into consideration and explored.

Whether or not a boat is in navigation depends on the services the boat provides and the duties the boat performs. As such, in Stewart v. Dutra, the Supreme Court discussed the distinction drawn by the general maritime law between watercraft that are permanently affixed to the shore or resting on the ocean floor and those that are temporarily stationed in a particular location. The record reflects that the Lake Charles river boat casino was prohibited from conducting cruises or excursions after the Louisiana legislature enacted La. R.S. 2765. Since that time period, the river boat casino has been docked and has not conducted any cruises. Further, the boat itself was fitted with four winches, each holding steel cables to permanently secure the vessel to the dock. The utilities servicing the boat, including electricity, water, telephone, sewer, cable, and surveillance were attached to the vessel from land-based sources. Additionally, since the restrictions were set in place prohibiting river boat casinos mobility, the crew of the river boat has been significantly reduced, in fact the captain of the boat was no longer responsible for any navigational duties. To support the contention that this river boat is indeed “out of navigation,” the Fifth Circuit held in De LaRosa v. St. Charles Gaming Co., that the very same gambling boat at issue in the present case, was not a vessel for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction. The Appellate court dismissed the young woman’s claim, citing to the federal jurisprudence interpretation on maritime jurisdictional rules and definitions as applied to similar boats and circumstances. Therefore, her claim was not based in general maritime jurisdiction and would have to be governed by Louisiana statutes, which ultimately will deny her damages as a result of her blood alcohol content.

In summary, boats have to be in navigation in order to qualify for general maritime jurisdiction. The numerous river boat casinos that are located throughout Southeast Louisiana may fall outside the definition of a “vessel in navigation.” A boat cannot be permanently attached to the shore, or moored for extended periods of time and still qualify as being “in navigation.” Thus, the river boat casino would not be governed by federal maritime law, instead, they are out of navigation and are governed by the rules and statutes of Louisiana.