U.S. Supreme Court: Floating Home Not Designed to Any Practical Degree for Carrying People or Things on Water not a “Vessel”

Whether a structure is a “vessel” under maritime law has significant consequences, including, for example, whether those aboard it may be considered “seamen” under the Jones Act, whether it is subject to regulation by the U.S. Coast Guard, or whether those furnishing “necessaries” to it are entitled to assert a maritime lien against it when those necessaries are not paid for.  The last consequence was at issue in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, 2013 U.S. LEXIS 907 (U.S. Jan. 15, 2013), decided earlier this week.

Fane Lozman's (now destroyed) floating home

Fane Lozman’s (now destroyed) floating home

In 2002, Fane Lozman bought the 60-foot by 12-foot floating home pictured here.  It was constructed of plywood and had French doors on three sides.  Inside, it had a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom, kitchen, and a stairway leading to a second level with office space.  Under the main floor, an empty bilge space kept the structure afloat.  After be bought it, Lozman had the house towed about 200 miles to North Bay Village, Florida.  He moored it there and then twice more had it towed between nearby marinas.  Four years later, Lozman had the structure towed 70 miles to a marina owned by the city of Riviera Beach, Florida.  There he docked it.  Lozman and the city had disagreements, the city tried to evict him from the marina, and then the city sued the floating home in federal court “in rem,” invoking the federal district court’s admiralty jurisdiction, seeking to assert against it a maritime lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass.

The Federal Maritime Lien Act, 46 U.S.C. § 31342, entitled “Establishing maritime liens,” states that “a person providing necessaries to a vessel on the order of the owner or a person authorized by the owner…has a maritime lien on the vessel” and “may bring a civil action in rem to enforce the lien…”  The federal jurisdictional statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1), entitled “Admiralty, maritime and prize cases,” provides that “[t]he district courts shall have original jurisdiction, exclusive of the courts of the States, of…[a]ny civil case of admiralty or maritime jurisdiction….”

Lozman asked the federal trial court to dismiss the city’s lawsuit because, he argued, his floating home was not a “vessel,” and thus the court lacked admiralty jurisdiction, or power to hear the city’s case.  Both the trial court and the federal appeals court sitting over it, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, sided with the city, finding the floating home was a “vessel” under admiralty law and thus that the trial court did have power to hear the city’s case.  The Supreme Court, however, disagreed, finding the two lower courts had erred by interpreting the statutory definition of a “vessel” too broadly.  Its 7-2 opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, focused on the phrase, “capable of being used…as a means of transportation on water,” in the federal statutory definition of a vessel appearing in 1 U.S.C. § 3.  This provision, entitled “‘Vessel’ as including all means of water transportation,” 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.”

The Supreme Court held, “in our view a structure does not fall within the scope of this statutory phrase unless a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.”  The Court also found that “nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water.  It had no rudder or other steering mechanism….Its hull was unraked…and it had a rectangular bottom 10 inches below the water….It had no special capacity to generate or store electricity but could obtain that utility only through ongoing connections with the land….Its small rooms looked like ordinary nonmaritime living quarters.  And those inside those rooms looked out upon the world, not through watertight portholes, but through French doors or ordinary windows…..The home has no other feature that might suggest a design to transport over water anything other than its own furnishings and related personal effects.  In a word, we can find nothing about the home that could lead a reasonable observer to consider it designed to a practical degree for ‘transportation on water.'”

The Court concluded:

“We are willing to assume for argument’s sake that sometimes it is possible actually to use for water transportation a structure that is in no practical way designed for that purpose….But even so, the City cannot show the actual use for which it argues.  Lozman’s floating home moved only under tow.  Before its arrest, it moved significant distances only twice in seven years.  And when it moved, it carried, not passengers or cargo, but at the very most (giving the benefit of any factual ambiguity to the City) only its own furnishings, its owner’s personal effects, and personnel present to assure the home’s safety….This is far too little actual ‘use’ to bring the floating home within the terms of the [statutory definition of a “vessel”].

Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise liners and excursion boats and ships, primarily in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, but also all over the inland waterways.  If you have questions about your or your family’s legal rights under maritime, or admiralty, law, feel free to contact us at 877-404-6529 (toll-free), 412-281-4340, or info@golawllc.com.  Our website is www.golawllc.com.

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