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Luckhart v. Southern Illinois Riverboat

May 27, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge J. Phil Gilbert


This matter comes before the Court on the motion for summary judgment filed by defendant Southern Illinois Riverboat/Casino Cruises, Inc., d/b/a Harrah's Metropolis Casino ("Harrah's") (Doc. 22). Plaintiff Robin Luckhart has responded to the motion (Doc. 32), and Harrah's has replied to that response (Doc. 35).

This case arose out of an injury Luckhart suffered while patronizing the defendant's gambling facility located on the riverboat M/V Harrah's Northstar ("Northstar"). She alleges a door slammed shut on her hands and wrists when she was attempting to enter the interior of the riverboat from an outdoor smoking area. Luckhart brought this case alleging a claim under federal maritime law (Count I) and asserting admiralty jurisdiction under 46 U.S.C. app. 30101.*fn1

Harrah's asks the Court to dismiss Luckhart's maritime law claim because the Northstar is not a "vessel," and Harrah's is therefore not subject to maritime liability for injuries that occurred on board.

I. Facts

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosed materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Spath v. Hayes Wheels Int'l-Ind., Inc., 211 F.3d 392, 396 (7th Cir. 2000). The reviewing court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Chelios v. Heavener, 520 F.3d 678, 685 (7th Cir. 2008); Spath, 211 F.3d at 396. There are no genuine factual disputes in this case. The sole issue disputed in the pending motion is whether the undisputed facts entitle Harrah's to judgment as a matter of law.

All parties agree that on March 23, 2008, the time of Luckhart's injury, the Northstar had been continuously moored on the Ohio River at Metropolis, Illinois, since 2004. The Northstar was attached with rigging to a free-floating platform barge which was, in turn, attached by clamps to steel girders (dolphins) that were permanently attached to the river floor on three sides of the barge. The Northstar was serviced by land-based utilities (e.g., sewer, water, electricity, cable and internet) through land lines.

The Northstar was towed from Kansas City via New Orleans to Metropolis in 2001 when Harrah's first acquired the boat, but Harrah's did not intend to further move the Northstar from its mooring unless required to do so by the Coast Guard as part of an inspection for certification. The Coast Guard is responsible for inspecting the Northstar to maintain its certification and has informed Harrah's that the Northstar may have to leave its moorings for inspection in 2011. Although the Northstar was built in 1993-94 to carry passengers for gaming activities, Harrah's has no intention of transporting passengers, cargo or equipment on the boat. If it is required to leave its mooring for a Coast Guard inspection, it will carry no passengers. In fact, it has never transported passengers since Harrah's acquired it in 2001, and it has only left its mooring for Coast Guard inspections since it docked in Metropolis.

The Northstar had a crew of captains, a chief engineer, deckhands, security personnel and housekeepers, although the deckhands are not certified by the Coast Guard. It also had life preservers, rescue boats to reach people who have fallen overboard, firefighting equipment, working engines, generators, fire-fighting equipment, extensive navigation equipment (including working radar), bilge pumps and a propulsion system. It has only used its engines during Coast Guard inspections and to clear debris from around the boat. It did not -- and was not required to -- have life rafts because it did not transport passengers. The Northstar was fully operational to sail and could be disconnected from its mooring, line-based utilities and ramps and be ready to cruise within 30 to 45 minutes or, in an emergency, within 10 to 15 minutes.

Luckhart filed her complaint in June 2009. Harrah's now asks the Court to grant it summary judgment on Count I, Luckhart's maritime claim, for lack of jurisdiction because the Northstar is not a vessel.

II. Analysis

Congress has conferred to the federal courts original jurisdiction over "[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1). Admiralty jurisdiction encompasses "cases of injury or damage, to person or property, caused by a vessel on navigable waters, even though the injury or damage is done or consummated on land." 46 U.S.C. app. § 30101 (emphasis added). Luckhart alleges in this case that her injury was "caused by a vessel" and that therefore the Court has admiralty jurisdiction under § 30101.*fn2 Harrah's argues the Court does not have admiralty jurisdiction because the Northstar is not a vessel.

In Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co., 543 U.S. 481 (2005), the Supreme Court addressed what makes a watercraft a "vessel" as that term is understood in the general maritime law. The Court found that the Rules Construction Act, 1 U.S.C. § 3, codified the meaning of the term "vessel" as understood in the general maritime law. Id. at 490. That statute states, "The word 'vessel' includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water." 1 U.S.C. § 3. The Court distinguished watercraft temporarily stationed in a particular location from those "permanently moored or otherwise rendered practically incapable of transportation or movement." Id. at 493-94. The latter, it held, were not "capable of being used" for maritime transport in any meaningful sense and were therefore not "vessels." Id. at 494. The remote or theoretical possibility that such watercraft might one day sail again was not sufficient to make them "vessels." Id. at 494, 496. There must be a "practical possibility" of a watercraft's use as a means of transportation on water for it to be a "vessel." Id. at 496.

In relying on the definition of "vessel" contained in 1 U.S.C. ยง 3, the Supreme Court rejected the notion that a watercraft would not be a "vessel" simply because its primary purpose was not the transportation of people or cargo. Id. at 495. The statutory definition, it noted, did not require that a watercraft be used primarily for the purpose of transportation on water. Id. Thus, regardless of its primary purpose, so long as a watercraft is ...

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