"What is a vessel?" by Katherine R. Colletta
A man’s floating home may be his castle, but it’s not necessarily a vessel. In the recent decision of Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, 568 U.S. _______ (2013), the United States Supreme Court once again considered the important question of “What is a vessel?” The issue was whether a house-like plywood structure with empty bilge space underneath the main floor to keep it afloat was a vessel, subject to Admiralty jurisdiction. If it was a vessel, then the City of Riviera Beach could properly maintain its in rem claim against Mr. Lozman’s floating home, seeking a maritime lien for dockage fees and for trespass, because admiralty jurisdiction would exist. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, focusing on the home’s capability of being used as a means of transport on water, found the “houseboat” to be a vessel. The Supreme Court disagreed and, by a 7-2 margin, found that the Eleventh Circuit’s view of what constitutes a “vessel” to be too broad.
The Court focused on the statutory language of 1 U.S.C. §3, which defines a “vessel” as including “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water,” noting the uncertainty among the Circuits about application of the term “capable.” Borrowing from its earlier decision in Stewart v. Dutra, the Court stated that the definition must be applied in a “practical,” not a “theoretical” way. With practicality in mind, the Court adopted a “reasonable observer” standard, stating that 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 concluded that the floating home was not a vessel. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that the physical characteristics (no rudder or steering, unraked hull, rectangular bottom 10 inches below the water, no ability to generate or store power) of the “houseboat” demonstrated that it was not designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water. Recognizing that the focus of its opinion was the capability of the floating home for transportation over water, the Court nonetheless rejected arguments that the floating home was actually used for such transportation, noting that it was only capable of being moved under tow, that it only moved significant distances twice in seven years, and that when it had moved, it did not carry passengers or cargo – in short, the Court considered these items to be “far too little actual ‘use’ to bring the floating home within the terms of the statute.” (emphasis in original).
While a “reasonable observer” standard allows for a certain degree of subjectivity (or flexibility), the decision does make clear(er) several points:
The Court acknowledged that the most recent approach to answering the question of vessel status “is neither perfectly precise nor always determinative,” though it appears to narrow the definition of what might be considered a vessel.
Posted By: Katharine R. Colletta, Partner at Chaffe McCall.
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