Appellate court rules Alton Belle workers are 'seamen' in Kardis reversal

By Steve Gonzalez | Apr 24, 2006

Alton Belle

Phil Kardis

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed two defense summary judgment orders entered by former Madison County Circuit Judge Phillip Kardis and remanded the cases back to Madison County for further proceedings.

In reversing Kardis' orders, the appellate court ruled that employees who work on the Alton Belle Casino are "seamen" and can sue for damages under the Jones Act, a statute that provides a means for recovering legal damages for maritime workers.

Angela Booten, a housekeeper, and Craig Willeford, a slot attendant, filed separate suits for damages under the Jones Act after each suffered on-the-job injuries.

"...We find that the Alton Belle is a 'vessel in navigation' for purposes of the Jones Act, thereby making plaintiffs seamen," according to the opinion issued Monday. "Accordingly, the trial court erred in ruling as a matter of law that the Alton Belle was not a vessel in navigation and in entering summary judgments in favor of defendant."

The Alton Belle moved for a summary judgment in both cases on the issue of seaman status under the Jones Act.

Kardis heard the motions on the same day and granted summary judgment in favor of defendant in both cases. The cases were then consolidated on appeal.

Initially, the Alton Belle operated as a gambling boat that took excursions on the Mississippi River pursuant to the Riverboat Gambling Act (Act). The Act required excursion boats to leave their docks and cruise on "navigable streams" in order for gambling to be allowed.

The Act was amended, effective June 25, 1999, to allow gambling on a "permanently moored barge," as well as a "self-propelled excursion boat."

On June 26, 1999, the 1,500-passenger Alton Belle discontinued cruising.

Dennis Crank, Alton Belle's facility manager, testified that there are no plans for the Alton Belle to resume cruising.

In addition to the 1,500-passenger boat known as the Alton Belle, the present gambling complex consists of a fun barge, the Spirit of America barge, the employee barge and the patio barge.

All five components of the complex float and rise and fall with the level of the river. The boat itself is moored to a dock and is connected to land-based utilities, including electric, telephone, water, and sewer.

Before the boat can leave the dock, the utility lines must be disconnected, five boarding ramps must be raised, and cables that hold the boat to the dock must be disconnected.

These procedures take approximately 15 minutes, however, Dennis Crank testified that in the case of an emergency, it would only take the crew approximately 5 to 7 minutes to disconnect the mooring cables.

Authoring the opinion for the court, Justice Richard Goldenhersh wrote, "Since June 1999, the Alton Belle has left its mooring for dedrifting approximately five times per year. During this process the boat is spun two or three times to dislodge any accumulated drift materials. The boat then returns to its mooring. Despite no longer cruising, the vessel always has fuel on board and remains fully capable of navigating the river. Defendant has never applied for permanent mooring status.

"The Alton Belle is required to comply with all Coast Guard regulations for a passenger vessel. For example, the Coast Guard requires lifesaving equipment to be on board, so that even today the Alton Belle is equipped with 1,500 life jackets, 6 ring buoys, and 6 inflatable rafts.

"The Alton Belle is inspected every 90 days by the Coast Guard to ensure compliance with regulations. When customers are on board, a full marine crew must also be on board. The Alton Belle employs a senior captain, 3 captains, 4 engineers, 4 mates, and 21 deck hands. The Alton Belle remains a licensed passenger vessel."

"Plaintiffs first argue the trial court erred in granting summary judgments in favor of defendant because a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether the Alton Belle was a "vessel in navigation" for purposes of the Jones Act. According to plaintiffs, defendant's subjective intent not to navigate the Alton Belle in the future is a factor but, without more, merely creates a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the boat is, in fact, permanently moored, thereby precluding the entry of a summary judgment.

"In a supplemental brief, plaintiffs argue that recent decisions indicate that the Alton Belle is a "vessel in navigation" as a matter of law. Defendant replies that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgments in its favor because an indefinitely moored casino such as the Alton Belle is not a vessel in navigation for purposes of the Jones Act."

"The Alton Belle's ability to cruise is more than a theoretical possibility. It remains a practical possibility, and the Alton Belle actually navigates the river.

"First, the Alton Belle is required to comply with all Coast Guard regulations pertaining to a passenger vessel and is inspected every 90 days to ensure compliance.

"Second, the Alton Belle maintains a full maritime crew and is equipped with a motor, fuel, and everything necessary to navigate the Mississippi River on which it is moored.

"Third, it can be disconnected from its mooring cables within 7 to 15 minutes, depending upon whether there is an urgent need to free the Alton Belle from its mooring. Dennis Crank testified that defendant maintains the quick-disconnect policy in order to be able to get out of harm's way in case of an emergency. Finally, the Alton Belle actually navigates the Mississippi River approximately five times per year when it is released from its mooring and spun around to remove accumulated drift materials."

Justices, Spomer and Chapman concurred with Goldenhersh. The cases will be reassigned to Circuit Judge Don Weber.

02 L 677
03 L 689

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