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Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach - 568 U.S. 115, 133 S. Ct. 735 (2013)

Rule:

Not every floating structure is a “vessel" even if it is an “artificial contrivance” capable of floating, moving under tow, and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so. Rather, 1 U.S.C.S. § 3 applies to an artificial contrivance capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.  And, a court must apply this definition in a “practical,” not a “theoretical,” way. Consequently, a structure does not fall within the scope of this statutory phrase unless a reasonable observer, looking to the structure’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water. 

Facts:

Petitioner Lozman's floating home was a house-like plywood structure with empty bilge space underneath the main floor to keep it afloat. Lozman had it towed several times before deciding on a marina owned by the cCty of Riviera Beach, Florida (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. The district court 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. Lozman sought further review in the United States Supreme Court.

Issue:

Is a floating structure a “vessel” under 1 U.S.C.S. § 3, thus under maritime jurisdiction of the federal court, even if the structure is indefinitely moored, and receives power and utilities from shore?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The floating home (which was not self-propelled) was not a “vessel” under § 3. A reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water. But for the fact that it floated, nothing about the home suggested it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water. 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 they looked out not through watertight portholes, but through French doors or ordinary windows. The home was able to travel over water only by being towed and had only moved twice, under tow, in seven years, which was far too little actual “use” to bring the floating home within the terms of the statute.

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