As yachts go, Fane Lozeman’s vessel was no Queen Mary. First of all, the two-story, 60-foot boat had no name, motor or way of being steered. She drew only 10 inches of water and had glass French doors on three sides, making the idea of an ocean passage nonsensical. Tied up at the dock in North Beach Village, Fla., she was the functional equivalent of a house down to the sewer line and electrical lines snaking onshore.
That didn’t stop town authorities from getting an order under marine law to seize the vessel and tow it to Miami, after Lozeman failed to heed local ordinances and pay his dockage fees. Now the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to decide the question of whether the term “vessel” applies to anything that floats, or should be reserved for things intended to move from place to place.
The last time the Court considered the question was in 2005, concerning the Super Scoop, a massive dredger used to dig the trench for the Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court that the Super Scoop was indeed a vessel even though she was dragged through the water instead of navigating proudly on her own, and wasn’t used to transport anything other than her crew members and mud.
The decision in in Stewart v. Dutra turned on an 1851 law that defines a vessel as “every description of water-craft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”” The decision also cited the fact the Super Scoop was towed from California to Boston through the Panama Canal, satisfying the “capable of being used” part.
Stewart then, doesn’t bode well for Lozeman. His vessel not only survived the 200-mile trip from Fort Myers on Florida’s west coast to North Beach on the east, but made it through Hurricane Wilma even as the storm destroyed the marina around it.
But Lozeman does have a powerful ally: The U.S. government, which wants the Supreme Court to kick the case back for further consideration on whether the houseboat (now destroyed) was in fact a “contrivance …capable of being used” as water transportation.
“A floating structure” is not a vessel “merely because the structure itself is capable of being towed over the water,” the government said in a brief supporting Lozeman’s position. The government wants a narrower definition of “vessel” in part because of all the federal laws that apply to ships and not to things that float but do not move. The Jones Act covers seamen working on ships, for example, but should it also cover the roofer who falls from Lozeman’s second-floor sun deck onto his front yard? And the Coast Guard has the power to inspect seagoing vessels for safety violations, but until now has not rapped on the doors of houseboat owners to count life jackets.
Lozeman lost his house in a fight with town authorities over $3,000 in unpaid fees. The town used a maritime lien, designed to keep ship owners from “sailing away from their debts,” to seize the houseboat and tow it to Miami, where it was the winning bidder at auction and had the vessel — excuse me, floating home — destroyed. The Eleventh Circuit upheld the town’s actions, citing an earlier decision involving a floating casino that held anything that can move over water, even “to its own detriment,” is a boat.
The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Super Scoop left room for Lozeman to win, however. Citing past decisions involving floating warehouses and other permanently moored structures, Thomas wrote: “The question remains in all cases whether the watercraft’s use “as a means of transportation on water” is a practical possibility or merely a theoretical one.”
But he closed with a quote from an 1896 case that makes this a tough one to call:
It seems a stretch of the imagination to class the deck hands of a mud dredge in the quiet waters of a Potomac creek with the bold and skillful mariners who breast the angry waves of the Atlantic; but such and so far-reaching are the principles which underlie the jurisdiction of the courts of admiralty that they adapt themselves to all the new kinds of property and new sets of operatives and new conditions which are brought into existence in the progress of the world.”