Supreme Court rules houseboat not a vessel under maritime law

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 7-2 in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] that a houseboat permanently docked to land is not a vessel for purposes of 1 USC § 3 [text] and thus is not under federal maritime jurisdiction [DOJ backgrounder]. The majority opinion was delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer. Echoing the oral arguments before the decision, the opinion emphasized the broadness of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit's decision [opinion]:

Not every floating structure is a "vessel." To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges, or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not "vessels," even if they are "artificial contrivance[s]"capable of floating, moving under tow, and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so. Rather, the statute applies to an "artificial contrivance ... capable of being used ... as a means of transportation on water." ... "[T]ransportation" involves the "conveyance (of things or persons) from one place to another." ... And we must apply this definition in a "practical," not a "theoretical," way. Consequently, 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.
Breyer also created a rule for future vessel-defining courts: "[If 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." Fane Lozman's houseboat was sold and destroyed due to a District Court order. The court ruled this did not moot the issue due to the potential of Lozman receiving damages. Lozman was elated over the victory [Palm Beach Post report].

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, dissented from the opinion, although the dissent agrees with much of the decision. "The Court, however, creates a novel and unnecessary 'reasonable observer' reformulation of these principles and errs in its determination, under this new standard, that the craft before us is not a vessel. Given the underdeveloped record below, we should remand."

 

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