Back in November, our blog discussed how the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in a very interesting maritime law case seeking an answer to the following question: What kinds of structures can properly be considered vessels?
The question is extremely important because if a structure is considered a vessel, it is subject to the application of maritime law, which has its own set of unique legal rules governing everything from property rights to personal injuries.
The case, Lozman v, the City of Riviera Beach, involved a floating two-story houseboat that city officials said was not in compliance with safety requirements in the marina.
In 2009, city officials -- acting on a legal victory in federal court -- invoked federal maritime law to have the houseboat "arrested," towed from the marina and destroyed.
The houseboat owner, 51-year-old Fane Lozman, however, argued that the city's designation of the structure as a vessel in order to invoke maritime law was far-fetched given the fact that it had no steering mechanism or engine, and was moored to the dock with cables.
He eventually appealed to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which sided with Riviera Beach. Specifically, the court found that the city's definition of a vessel as any structure capable of moving people or items over water to be persuasive.
Lozman's subsequent petition for writ of certiorari was granted and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on the first day of its 2012-2013 term.
In recent developments, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Lozman this past Tuesday, finding that his structure was not a vessel.
The court, in an opinion authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, indicated that vessels as they relate to maritime law are defined as "watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water."
Using this definition as a guide, the court reached the following conclusion:
"We believe that a reasonable observer, looking to the home's physical characteristics and activities, would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water," reads the opinion. "And we consequently conclude that the floating home is not a vessel."
The opinion also went on to indicate that the lower courts erred by applying too broad of a definition of vessels in this case.
"Not every floating structure is a vessel," wrote Breyer. "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."
Clearly the most notable aspect of this case is that the Supreme Court seems to have articulated a new "reasonable observer" standard to be used by courts in deciding whether a structure is properly considered a vessel or a home.
If you or a family member was injured in a boat accident and are now dealing with pain and suffering, medical bills, lost wages and other expenses, you should strongly consider speaking with an experienced legal professional.
Sources: Google News, "Floating home not covered under maritime law," Jesse Holland, Jan. 15, 2013; The Wall Street Journal, "I'm on a boat! (Or maybe I'm not)," Brent Kendall, Oct. 1, 2012