WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday torpedoed an admirality lawsuit against a "floating home," finding that it did not qualify as a vessel to give jurisdiction.
Fane Lozman docked his floating home in North Bay Village, Fla., in 2002 and lived there until Hurricane Wilma struck in late 2005.
Since the home lacked any means of self-propulsion, Lozman had it towed whenever he changed marinas. In March 2006, he had it towed to the Riviera Beach marina - a 70-mile journey that required another boat to follow behind and keep the home from swinging dangerously.
Lozman paid a monthly dockage fee of nearly $1,200, but he said Riviera Beach wanted to evict him from the outset because he had helped scuttle development plans. The purported eviction reasons included failure to muzzle Lozman's 10-pound dachshund and hiring unlicensed boat-repair workers.
When Lozman beat eviction proceedings at a jury trial in 2007, the marina argued that the home did not meet its newly passed rules. As Lozman failed to bring his floating home into compliance, the city filed an admirality suit alleging trespass and seeking to foreclose maritime liens for city dockage.
The U.S. Marshals Service arrested Lozman's ship in April 2009, and towed it 80 miles to Miami.
A federal judge approved admirality jurisdiction after finding that Lozman's home qualified as a vessel under Section 3 of the Rules of Construction Act. Riviera Beach then won more than $3,000 for dockage and late fees at summary judgment.
A seven-justice majority found Tuesday that the mere ability to float does not bestow vessel status on a structure.
"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," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. "Rather, the statute applies to an 'artificial contrivance . . . capable of being used . . . as a means of transportation on water.'" (Parentheses and emphasis in original.)
The determination hinged on whether the floating home was designed principally to carry people or things over water.
Lozman's home owed its floatation capacity to an empty bilge space underneath the main floor of the 60-foot by 12-foot structure. On the outside, the home was plywood with French doors on three sides. It contained a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom, and kitchen, along with a stairway leading to a second level with office space.
"But for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman's home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water," Breyer wrote. "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.
"Although lack of self-propulsion is not dispositive, it may be a relevant physical characteristic. And Lozman's home differs significantly from an ordinary houseboat in that it has no ability to propel itself."
In a 12-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court should have remanded the case to develop the light record.
"The majority errs ... in concluding that the purpose component of the §3 [admirality] test is whether 'a reasonable observer, looking to the [craft]'s physical characteristics and activities, would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water,'" said Sotomayor, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy. "This phrasing has never appeared in any of our cases and the majority's use of it, despite its seemingly objective gloss, effectively (and erroneously) introduces a subjective component into the vessel-status inquiry.
"For one thing, in applying this test the majority points to some characteristics of Lozman's craft that have no relationship to maritime transport, such as the style of the craft's rooms or that 'those inside those rooms looked out upon the world, not through water-tight portholes, but through French doors or ordinary windows.' The majority never explains why it believes these particular esthetic elements are important for determining vessel status. In fact, they are not. Section 3 is focused on whether a structure is 'used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.' By importing windows, doors, room style, and other esthetic criteria into the §3 analysis, the majority gives our vessel test an 'I know it when I see it' flavor. But that has never been nor should it be the test: A badly designed and unattractive vessel is different from a structure that lacks any 'practical capacity' for maritime transport. In the majority's eyes, the two appear to be one and the same."
Sotomayor called the majority's analysis "confusing," but would not go so far as to say that Lozman's home was necessarily a vessel.
"The simple truth is that we know very little about the craft's capabilities and what did or did not happen on its various trips," she wrote. "By focusing on the little we do know for certain about this craft (i.e., its windows, doors, and the style of its rooms) in determining whether it is a vessel, the majority renders the §3 inquiry opaque and unpredictable."
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