Floating Home Destroyed

The laws passed by Congress are known as “statutes” and most of them are organized in a logical manner into something known as a “code.”  When a statute is placed into a “code” it is said to have been “codified.”  Not all statutes are organized into “codes,” but most of them are.

The United States Code is divided into different sections known as “Titles” and each “Title” concerns a different area of law.

The very first “Title” in the United States Code begins by defining a number of important words.  The third law in the first “Title” of the United States Code defines the word “Vessel” as any “watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

Another article reviewed a number of federal cases concerning exactly what is a vessel.  Some of the cases are obvious, and others are not.  Some are humorous.  One of the cases

held that “A stern wheel steamer licensed for the coasting trade, formerly a ferryboat, which is used for moving a floating house, in which an exhibition or circus show was conducted, is a vessel.”  Another of the cases held that “A semi-tractor trailer (with wheels) which drives over a frozen lake is not a “vessel” even if the load which it is towing breaks through the ice.”

It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of arguments that could have been made in the case of the semi-tractor trailer.  One party may argue that a semi-tractor trailer provides a means of transportation.  When that semi drives over the top of a frozen lake, then that semi is in fact transporting people and things over water B even though that “water” is located under a sheet of ice.  When the ice breaks, then the whole thing ends up in the water – so the semi is, under this definition, a “vessel.”

In such a case, the other side could have argued that under that type of logic every car, truck, motorcycle or bicycle is a “vessel” when it crosses any bridge over water.

You have to give the attorney “style points” for trying to convince a federal court that “a semi-tractor trailer isn’t a truck, it’s a vessel – at least when it’s being driven on a frozen lake.  It’s a bit like trying to force a square peg into a round hole – but you never know for sure, sometimes those square pegs fit.

Whether or not an object is a “vessel” can make a difference.  There’s a whole body of federal law known as “admiralty” or “maritime” law, and this type of law has its own rules and procedures.  The outcome of any given case can be profoundly affected by whether or not a case is governed by “maritime” law.  So there can be real money at stake in determining whether or not any given object is a “vessel.”

In 2002, a person bought a 60-foot by 12-foot “floating home.”  The home consisted of a “house-like plywood structure with French doors on three sides.” It also contained “a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom, and kitchen, along with a stairway leading to a second level with office space.”  There was an empty “bilge” space underneath the main floor that kept it afloat.  The home had no means of propulsion or steering. Instead, it only floated, and though it could be towed over water to different places, the home had no means of getting anywhere under its own power. The floating home was not a “houseboat” because under federal law a “houseboat” is a “motorized vessel . . . designed primarily for multi-purpose accommodation spaces with low freeboard and little or no foredeck or cockpit.”

After buying the “floating home” the new owner had it towed to a marina owned by a city in Florida.  The city unsuccessfully tried to evict the owner, and finally the city filed a lawsuit against the owner in federal court under maritime law.  The lawsuit sought to impose a lien for “dockage” fees and damages for trespass.  At trial, the owner claimed that the suit should be thrown out because the “floating home” was not a vessel, and so federal maritime law didn’t apply.

You be the judge.  Is a floating home like this a vessel – or not?  If you said “yes – it is a vessel” then you would have agreed with the trial court, which awarded the city $3,039.88 in “dockage” fees plus $1 for damages for trespass.

But if you said “no” then you would have agreed with the United States Supreme Court, who said that in order to be a “vessel” an object must be capable of being used “as a means of transportation on water.”  The Supreme Court found that the “floating home” itself was transported, but that it didn’t transport people or things, and so it was not a vessel.

The case is reported as Lozman v. The City of Riviera Beach, Florida (2013) 2013 DJDAR 617.

So what finally happened?  Before the case was heard by the Supreme Court, the “floating home” was sold to pay the judgment in favor of the city.  The city bought the home and destroyed it.  The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, where the decision of the trial court (and the other intermediate courts) was reversed.  So the owner won – but too late to save his “floating home.”  Apparently the owner was left with a claim against the city for money damages.

Legal considerations involving floating homes, and any determination about whether or not an object is a “vessel” or whether or not any case is subject to maritime law, involve complex legal considerations.  Persons with such questions should consult competent legal counsel.

Copyright 2017 ROBERT B. JACOBS