Tag Archives: vessel

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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Court Holds “Thunder Horse” Floating Production Drilling Quarters Not “Vessel” Under Maritime Law, So Injured Claimant Cannot Be Jones Act Seaman

BP’s production drilling quarters “Thunder Horse,” located in 6,000 feet deep waters approximately 175 miles southeast of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico

In recent years, the oil and gas industry has designed, built, and installed in the Gulf of Mexico hugely expensive and technologically complex drilling and production structures capable of extracting hydrocarbons from beneath the seabed in the Gulf’s deep waters.  In shallower waters, the industry can use jack-up drilling rigs, which, since they have hulls and other vessel-like features, and are comparatively easy to relocate from well to well, courts have repeatedly held are “vessels in navigation” for purposes of admiralty and maritime law.  If a crewman of a “vessel in navigation” is injured, then he or she is generally entitled to bring personal injury claims as a “seaman” under the federal Jones Act (for negligence) and under the general maritime law (or federal common law) for unseaworthiness and maintenance and cure.  But, if the structure is not a “vessel in navigation,” then the worker injured while working on it cannot claim to be a crewman of a “vessel in navigation” and entitled to the remedies reserved to seamen.

Kerr-McGee’s spar, “Red Hawk,” in 5,300 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico

A typical jack-up drilling rig

Recently, a federal district court in Louisiana held that a massive “floating production drilling quarters” called the Thunder Horse, operated by BP, is not a “vessel in navigation,” and, thus, that the claimant, a worker aboard the structure, could not be a seaman as to that structure, and thus that he was not entitled to pursue a seaman’s personal injury claims, noted above.  In Washington v. BP America, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 164371 (W.D. La. Nov. 16, 2012), the court focused on how the Thunder Horse was, with reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Stewart v. Dutra Construction Co., not “practically capable of maritime transportation, regardless of its primary purpose or state of transit at a particular moment.”  In Stewart, the Supreme Court concluded, “[t]he question remains in all cases whether the watercraft’s use as a means of transportation on water is a practical possibility or merely a theoretical one.”  In Washington v. BP America, Inc., the court decided the Thunder Horse, like another deep water drilling and production structure at work in the Gulf of Mexico, a “spar” called Red Hawk, is a “work platform,” not a “vessel.”

The key aspects of the Thunder Horse which render it a “work platform,” and not a “vessel,” the court found, are:

  • While it floats like a vessel (on four partially submerged columns), it lacks any means of significant self-propulsion.
  • It was towed to its location in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • It lacks a raked bow.
  • It is “secured to the Outer Continental Shelf with 16 wire and chain mooring lines attached to 19-foot wide piles driven 90 feet into the seabed.”
  • Thunder Horse is connected to the seabed by eight hydrocarbon production lines.
  • Thunder Horse can only move within a 350-foot radius by tightening and slackening its mooring lines and, apart from being temporarily jarred outside this radius in 2005 by Hurricane Dennis, the structure “has stayed within the 350-foot radius.”
  • BP plans to keep Thunder Horse secured to the Outer Continental Shelf for the balance of the 25 year productive life of the wells it services.
  • BP estimated $400 million as the cost to detach Thunder Horse’s mooring lines, secure the wells, and move the structure elsewhere.

Having found the Thunder Horse is not a “vessel,” the Louisiana federal court also concluded the plaintiff in the case, Terrance Washington, who was working as a cook, and who claimed he was injured after he slipped and fell on a walkway on the structure, could not be a seaman under the Jones Act as to the Thunder Horse, and therefore he was not entitled to pursue a seaman’s personal injury claims against BP.

Our law firm, Goldsmith & Ogrodowski, LLC, represents crewmen of towboats, barges, and other commercial vessels, as well as passengers aboard cruise 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 admiralty and maritime 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.