Odds are Improving for Riverboat Casino Employees Seeking Jones Act Seaman Status

Monday, September 09, 2002
In 1991, casinos were legalized in the state of Louisiana through the passage of the Louisiana Gaming Act. Riverboat casinos have been operational in the state since 1993. The Louisiana Gaming Act allows for fifteen riverboat licenses with mandatory Coast Guard certification of the vessels. The Act allows for both dockside and riverboat gaming. Five other states have riverboat casino gambling: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Mississippi. Although riverboat gaming has gained legal recognition in these states, riverboat casino employees have not had the same success in gaining seaman status under the Jones Act. The Jones Act (46 U.S.C. sec. 688) sets forth a scheme of recovery for personal injuries incurred by seamen while working on a vessel in navigable waters, against the seaman's employer/vessel owner. To be a "seaman" under the Jones Act, the employee must have duties which contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission, and the employee must have a connection to the vessel in navigation that is substantial in duration and nature. The benefits of being a Jones Act seaman include the minimal burden of proof that accompanies an action under this Act, along with the substantial recovery afforded to those with seaman status. Under the Act, a seaman recovers past and future lost wages, physical pain and suffering, and medical expenses. The monetary exposure of a vessel owner is greatly increased in cases where an injured employee qualifies as a seamen under the Jones Act. Those who fail to qualify as seamen are relegated to recoveries under ordinary land tort laws (with a higher burden of proof) and/or are classified as longshoremen whose remedies for the most part are covered under worker's compensation. In order to qualify as a Jones Act seaman, one must satisfy the dual requirements of being a "seaman" and working on a "vessel." The Jones Act itself does not define "seaman" or "vessel." Therefore, the task of defining these terms falls on the courts. This article focuses on the courts' attempts to delineate the scope of the Jones Act as it pertains to riverboat casino employees and vessel owners. In the context of riverboat casino employees, the federal courts have differed over whether these employees qualify as seamen under the Jones Act. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and the Canal Zone. Within this jurisdiction, the Fifth Circuit has uniformly denied Jones Act seaman status to riverboat casino employees where the watercraft involved was primarily a floating dockside casino. One case within the Fifth Circuit involved the riverboat casino The Biloxi Belle. Before the court got to the question of whether the injured employee could be considered a "seaman" under the Jones Act, it had to first determine whether The Biloxi Belle was a "vessel." Ultimately, the non-vessel features of the riverboat were dispositive in the Fifth Circuit's decision to deny seaman status. The Biloxi Belle had no engine, no captain, no navigational aids, no crew quarters, and no steering mechanism. Basically, it was a floating casino that was neither designed for navigation nor used as a seagoing vessel. On the other hand, the federal courts in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri have been more willing to extend Jones Act seaman status to riverboat casino employees because the vessels involved in those jurisdictions tended to be watercraft that do in fact navigate waterways. A federal district court in Illinois was confronted with a similar situation in deciding the status of M/V Northern Star as a vessel or non-vessel for Jones Act purposes. In the court's opinion, it actually made reference to The Biloxi Belle and compared the two riverboat casinos. The court noted that the Northern Star was actually constructed in New Orleans and traveled to Illinois on its own power up the Mississippi River. Unlike The Biloxi Belle, the Northern Star had an engine, a captain, and full-time marine operations employees. Accordingly, the court held that the injured seaman could recover under the Jones Act. This is not to suggest that all the federal courts outside of the Fifth Circuit routinely find in favor of the injured casino employee. Recall that recovery under the Jones Act is contingent upon both vessel and seaman status. The injured employee must work on a riverboat casino that qualifies as a vessel and the injured employee must have duties which contribute to the function of the vessel or the accomplishment of its mission along with a connection to the vessel in navigation that is substantial in duration and nature. For example, a federal district court in Iowa held that although the riverboat casino in question could be considered a vessel, the injured employee was not a seaman under the Jones Act because she only worked on the riverboat when it was docked. What does this mean to casino riverboat employees and vessel owners who are curious about their potential Jones Act seaman status or exposure to claims? It is best to view the varied case law on this issue as a matter of degree. On one end of the spectrum, there is the obvious case of a navigable watercraft that is in fact navigating a waterway with employees on the vessel that serve some function which furthers the accomplishment of the vessel's mission. One obvious example within the context of casinos would be a cruise ship that operates a casino. These cruise ship docks at various ports, loads passengers and crew, disembarks and begins navigating waterways. The staff serves some function that contributes to the mission of the cruise ship and would qualify as Jones Act seamen. Similarly, the employees on the cruise ship that operate the casino would enjoy Jones Act seaman status. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be watercraft such as The Biloxi Belle. The Biloxi Belle had no engine, captain, lifesaving equipment or full-time marine operations employees. In fact, it remained docked. Such a watercraft has repeatedly failed to meet the definition of a vessel. It is the cases in between these two extremes that create problems for the courts. Although the line between a floating casino and a riverboat casino engaged in actual navigation is blurred, there is some indication that even the Fifth Circuit is tending toward a more liberal application of the Jones Act on this issue. In one particular case from Louisiana, the District Court held that the differences between The Biloxi Belle and the riverboat casino known as the Lady of the Isle were obvious and glaring in that the latter was actually capable of navigation. This was one of the first cases in the Fifth Circuit to inquire into whether the riverboat casino can qualify as a vessel despite its primary purpose as a docked gambling facility. For the time being, whether an employee aboard a floating casino is a Jones Act seaman depends in part on the "luck of the draw." Authors: James Nader is a partner and C. Devin Faodol is an associate with the law firm of Lobman, Carnahan, Batt, Angelle & Nader in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mr. Nader's trial practice over the last eighteen years has included Admiralty and Maritime Law, an area in which he is an adjunct professor at Tulane University. For more information on the firm, please see its website at www.lcba-law.com, or contact them at 400 Poydras St., Suite 2300, New Orleans, LA 70130, phone (504) 586-9292. This article is for general information and educational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice. The authors are available to discuss any specific questions or concerns regarding any issues related to this article with you.
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