When is a casino more than a casino? The answer may be when it’s also a riverboat moored to a dock.

The question recently found its way to the Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after a casino employee got hurt while working a scissor lift. Because he was hurt aboard the Grand Palais riverboat casino, he filed for compensation under the Jones Act. But his employers argued the Jones Act didn’t apply. They said the Grand Palais was no longer a vessel.

The Jones Act and the definition of “vessel”

Most work-related injuries are covered by workers’ compensation. But workers’ compensation laws are generally governed at the state level. Since ships and sailors often move from port to port, state to state and across international waters, they need unique protections. They receive these protections under the Jones Act, which applies to seamen who spend at least 30% of their workday aboard a “vessel in navigation.”

Unlike workers’ compensation, the Jones Act involves an element of fault. Employees must show that their employer’s negligence was somehow responsible for their injury. As a result, employers may challenge their employees’ claims—or, as was the case in the Grand Palais incident, challenge the very idea that the ship could still be called a “vessel.”

So, in this case, everything hinged on the definition of vessel, which amounts to “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

Was the Grand Palais a vessel?

The employer argued that the Grand Palais was no longer being used to transport anything across water. Therefore, it was no longer a vessel. In fact, the employer noted that the Grand Palais had been moored for more than 16 years and was wired for electricity, cable television and more.

But the appellate court sided with the plaintiff. As the court noted in its opinion:

  • Ships don’t pass in and out of maritime law.
  • The Grand Palais was still capable of sailing. In fact, it had been well-maintained and could be readied to sail in less than an hour’s time.
  • Ships only stopped being vessels when permanently rendered unable to sail. Otherwise, the owner’s whims could pull vessels in and out of admiralty law.

Based on these arguments, the Court of Appeals said the worker had a right to pursue his case under the Jones Act.

Past the water’s edge

The Grand Palais case is just one of many that remind us maritime law doesn’t stop at the shore. Injured workers may have cases under maritime law anytime their work involves ships, terminals or related activities.