The United States Supreme Court addresses only about one percent of the cases brought before it. So it is significant when the Court takes up an issue affecting our industry. In January, the Court issued an opinion in the maritime case of Lozman v. City of Rivera Beach.
The central issue in the Lozman case pertained to whether the petitioner’s floating home was a vessel. The houseboat’s “status” was critical for the City of Riveria Beach’s claim for dockage fees and trespass that were based on the district court’s admiralty jurisdiction.
Courts have struggled with what is and isn’t a vessel nearly as long as industry has transported people and cargo by sea. Seven years ago, the Supreme Court tried to clarify the definition in Stewart v. Dutra Construction, when it suggested that virtually anything capable of carrying persons and/or goods across water may qualify as a vessel. The Lozman court has further refined the vessel status test, favoring a practicality based analysis.
Lozman’s houseboat was afloat and capable of towage across water, characteristics which the lower courts found were sufficient to make it a vessel. The Supreme Court disagreed. It declared that the vessel status issue should be decided by analyzing whether a reasonable observer, looking to the structure’s physical characteristics and activities, could consider it designed “to a practical degree” for carrying people or things over water. Such purposes were not the intended or actual uses of Lozman’s floating home. Therefore, it did not meet the legal standards for vessel status.
Vessel status has far reaching legal ramifications and is relevant for establishing admiralty jurisdiction, determining seaman status, creating maritime liens, and pursuing other rights and remedies unique to admiralty law and maritime commerce. However, as the Lozman case demonstrates, the vessel status issue can be complicated and is often determined on a case by case basis.