SCOTUS Decided Lozman: The House-Like Floating Structure Was Not a Vessel

Here is the Court’s syllabus in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida.  We will have more analysis of this opinion in the coming weeks.

Petitioner Lozman’s floating home was a house-like plywood structure with empty bilge space underneath the main floor to keep it a float.  He had it towed several times before deciding on a marina owned by the city of Riviera Beach (City).  After various disputes with Lozman and unsuccessful efforts to evict him from the marina, the City brought a federal admiralty lawsuit in rem against the floating home, seeking a lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass.  Lozman moved to dismiss the suit for lack of admiralty jurisdiction.  The Dis­trict Court found the floating home to be a “vessel” under the Rules of Construction Act, 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,” 1 U. S. C. §3, concluded that admiralty jurisdiction was proper, and awarded the City dockage fees and nominal damages.  The Eleventh Circuit af­firmed, agreeing that the home was a “vessel” since it was “capable” of movement over water despite petitioner’s subjective intent to re­main moored indefinitely.

Held:

1.  This case is not moot.  The District Court ordered the floating home sold, and the City purchased the home at auction and had it destroyed.  Before the sale, the court ordered the City to post a bond to ensure Lozman could obtain monetary relief if he prevailed. 

2.  Lozman’s floating home is not a §3 “vessel.”

(a)  The Eleventh Circuit found the home “capable of being used . . . as a means of transportation on water” because it could float and proceed under tow and its shore connections did not render it incapa­ble of transportation.  This interpretation is too broad. The definition of “transportation,” the conveyance of persons or things from one place to another, must be applied in a practical way.  Stewart v. Du­tra Constr. Co., 543 U. S. 481, 496.  Consequently, a structure does not fall within the scope of the 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.

(b)  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.  It had no steering mechanism, had an unraked hull and rectangular bottom 10 inches below the water, and had no capacity to generate or store electricity.  It also lacked self­ propulsion, differing significantly from an ordinary houseboat.

(c)  This view of the statute is consistent with its text, precedent, and relevant purposes.  The statute’s language, read naturally, lends itself to that interpretation: The term “contrivance” refers to some­thing “employed in contriving to effect a purpose”; “craft” explains that purpose as “water carriage and transport”; the addition of “wa­ter” to “craft” emphasizes the point; and the words, “used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water,” drive the point home.  Both Evansville & Bowling Green Packet Co. v. Chero Cola Bottling Co., 271 U. S. 19, and Stewart, supra, support this conclu­sion.  Evansville involved a wharf boat floated next to a dock, used to transfer cargo, and towed to harbor each winter; and Stewart in­volved a dredge used to remove silt from the ocean floor, which car­ried a captain and crew and could be navigated only by manipulating anchors and cables or by being towed.  Water transportation was not the primary purpose of either structure; neither was in motion at rel­evant times; and both were sometimes attached to the ocean bottom or to land.  However, Stewart’s dredge, which was regularly, but not primarily, used to transport workers and equipment over water, fell within the statutory definition while Evansville’s wharf boat, which was not designed to, and did not, serve a transportation function, did not.  Lower court cases, on balance, also tend to support this conclu­sion.  Further, the purposes of major federal maritime statutes—e.g., admiralty provisions provide special attachment procedures lest a vessel avoid liability by sailing away, recognize that sailors face spe­cial perils at sea, and encourage shipowners to engage in port-related commerce—reveal little reason to classify floating homes as “vessels.”  Finally, this conclusion is consistent with state laws in States where floating home owners have congregated in communities. 

(d)  Several important arguments made by the City and its amici are unavailing.  They argue that a purpose-based test may introduce a subjective element into “vessel” determinations.  But the Court has considered only objective evidence, looking to the views of a reasona­ble observer and the physical attributes and behavior of the struc­ture.  They also argue against using criteria that are too abstract, complex, or open-ended.  While this Court’s approach is neither per­fectly precise nor always determinative, it is workable and consistent and should offer guidance in a significant number of borderline cases.  And contrary to the dissent’s suggestion, the Court sees nothing to be gained by a remand.

(e)  The City’s additional argument that Lozman’s floating home was actually used for transportation over water is similarly unper­suasive.

649 F. 3d 1259, reversed.

BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS,

C. J., and SCALIA, THOMAS, GINSBURG, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KENNEDY, J., joined.

Jon Robinson
As a Member at Mouledoux, Bland, Legrand & Brackett, Jon Robinson focuses his practice on the representation of employers and carriers in matters arising under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act, the Defense Base Act, and the War Hazards Compensation Act. He can be contacted at (504) 595-3000 or by e-mail at jrobinson@mblb.com. Follow Jon on Twitter: @MrJonRobinson
Jon Robinson