Part 1: Countdown to Mardi Gras

Today's blog post is part 1 of 2. Tune in tomorrow for more of Mardi Gras and the law.

 A law librarian hopes for a throw from an Endymion float.

A law librarian hopes for a throw from an Endymion float.

Around the world, it goes by many names: Fettisdagen, Masopust, Pancake Day. If you’re in the United States, you probably know it as Mardi Gras. Literally “Fat Tuesday,” it is a Christian holiday that falls every year on the 47th day before Easter, with ancient roots as it marks the latest stored meats and animal fats could safely be consumed until the spring harvest. Carnival, or its culmination, is defined by different cultures to encompass different days, and is celebrated on every continent (the first recorded celebration in Antarctica took place in 1908) in endlessly creative ways (from Sambadrome dance spectaculars to epic food fights).

 A weekend day parade.

A weekend day parade.

In the United States, approximately 1.4 million people descend on New Orleans for Carnival festivities, which launch on the Twelfth Night of Christmas, January 6, building in a gradual crescendo through Fat Tuesday. The annual celebrations pump an estimated $1 billion into the south Louisiana economy. Where people and money meet, lawyers and politicians will follow, so that even the gratuitous excess of this pre-Lenten revelry is shaped by a web of local ordinances, Louisiana state law, and even the United States Constitution.

 Spectators eagerly await the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, New Orleans' premiere all-dog krewe.

Spectators eagerly await the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, New Orleans' premiere all-dog krewe.

The most obvious legal issues are criminal. New Orleans Police Department has its hands full between inspecting floats, escorting parades, and containing the masses. While that inevitably means some less-than-legal behaviors might go unchecked, testing the patience of the police can easily land you in Orleans Parish Prison, as the cops focus on stopping problems before they start. Unlucky arrestees will languish in O.P.P. until the overburdened courts can process them back out, sometimes only after the bells of Saint Louis Cathedral solemnly herald Ash Wednesday. Popular ways to get arrested include fighting, public urination, and drinking until you fall asleep on the sidewalk.

 Interior of a Nyx float about to roll.

Interior of a Nyx float about to roll.

Liability is also a major concern. Chapter 34 of the New Orleans Code of Ordinances, “Carnival, Mardi Gras,” requires krewes to carry liability insurance for issues relating to their floats and other aspects of the parade before a permit will be issued. But who is liable for the conduct of the individuals riding on the floats, drunkenly hurling trinkets at the roaring crowd? The largest parade, staged by the Super-Krewe of Endymion, has over 3,000 riders, which can make behavior difficult to police even with vigilant Float Captains empowered to enforce rules of conduct on the route. It is, then, no surprise that through the Revised Statutes, the Louisiana legislature has limited krewe liability beyond “deliberate and wanton act or gross negligence of the krewe or organization.” Unlimited liability would render such massive parades financially impossible. In the same statute, the state asserts that parade attendees assume “the risk of being struck by any missile whatsoever which has been traditionally thrown, tossed, or hurled by members of the krewe.” Which is to say, if you are watching a parade and get hit hard in the face with a bag of beads, forget about litigating and instead shout “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”

Further reading on Mardi Gras in New Orleans: