On January 15, 2013, the United States Supreme Court decided Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, No. 11-626, holding that the Rules of Construction Act's definition of "vessel" does not encompass every floating structure, but only those that a reasonable observer would consider to be designed to any practical degree to carry people or things on water.
Petitioner Fane Lozman owned a floating home made of plywood that had French doors on three sides and was kept afloat by a bilge space below the main floor. The home "had no rudder or other steering mechanism" and its hull was unraked and rectangular. The home "had no special capacity to generate or store electricity but could obtain that utility only through ongoing connections with the land." Unlike a houseboat, Mr. Lozman's home had "no ability to propel itself." In 2006, Mr. Lozman had his floating home towed 70 miles to a marina owned by the City of Riviera Beach, where it remained docked. Mr. Lozman and the city became embroiled in a series of disputes. After unsuccessful attempts in state court to evict Mr. Lozman, the city brought a federal admiralty action in rem against Mr. Lozman's floating home, seeking a lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass. Following a bench trial, the District Court awarded the city approximately $3000 for dockage and nominal damages for trespass. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the District Court that Mr. Lozman's floating home was a vessel because it was capable of movement over water.
The Supreme Court reversed. The Rules of Construction Act defines "vessel" to include "every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water." 1 U.S.C. § 3. Based upon its reading of the text of the statute, precedent, and the purposes of admiralty law, the Court rejected as too broad the Eleventh Circuit's "anything that floats" definition of the term "vessel." The Court focused on the meaning of the term "capable," concluding that it must be applied "in a ‘practical,' not a ‘theoretical,' way." Thus, the mere fact that the floating home had traveled over the water by tow on four occasions over a seven-year period did not mean it was "capable" of being used as a means of transportation within the meaning of the Act. According to the Court, "a structure does not fall within the scope of [Section 3's definition of vessel] 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 explained that this conclusion is supported by "the bulk of precedent" and is consistent with the purposes served by admiralty law. Because Mr. Lozman "cannot easily escape liability by sailing away in his home" and because "[h]e faces no special sea dangers," no purpose would be served by subjecting his floating home to the special maritime law regime.
Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Kennedy joined.
One of the authors of this legal update, Matthew Clark, assisted with the representation of Mr. Lozman.