Supreme Court Rejects "Anything That Floats" Test to Determine Vessel Status

Supreme Court Rejects "Anything That Floats" Test to Determine Vessel Status

By John E. Kawczynski
Field Womack & Kawczynski, LLC.

South Amboy, New Jersey

In Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, 2013 U.S. LEXIS 907, 568 U.S. ____, 184 L. Ed. 2d 604 (Jan 15, 2013), the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the City of Riviera Beach, Florida, properly claimed admiralty jurisdiction as part of its efforts to evict a floating home owned by Lozman from a city-owned marina. The specific question before the Court was whether the floating home was a “vessel” so that admiralty jurisdiction existed.

Although not expressly overturning its earlier decision in Stewart v. Dutra Constr. Co., 543 U.S. 481, 160 L. Ed. 2d 932, 125 S. Ct. 1118, 39 BRBS 5(CRT) (2005), the Supreme Court has attempted to define the outer li, rmits of its prior interpretation of 1 U.S.C.S. § 3 which defines a “vessel” as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

In attempting to fashion a test to distinguish between those things that are potentially capable of being used as a means of transportation, the Court attempted to distinguish between those floating objects that are practically capable of being used for transportation as compared to those that are merely theoretically capable of being used for transportation. Applying this test to the facts of this case, the Court held that Lozman’s floating home was not practically capable of transportation because it was generally unseaworthy (e.g., it had no rudder, it had an unraked hull, it did not generate its own power, its rooms looked like “ordinary nonmaritime living quarters”, and it had French doors and “ordinary windows” ). Other factors included the fact that the floating home was not self-propelled. 2013 U.S. LEXIS at *11-*13, 184 L. Ed. 2d at 611-612.

In an effort to articulate a test to apply the Court offered, “Consequently, in our view a structure does not fall within the scope of this 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.” . 2013 U.S. LEXIS at *11, 184 L. Ed. 2d at 611.

With the Court’s holding, we now appear to have come full circle and are left with a fact-specific analysis as to whether a floating object is a “vessel.” Now, however, the Court has added a new, and perhaps final, factor to consider – the “reasonable observer.” Thus, many floating objects that were previously thought to be vessels under Dutra may once again find that they are not “vessels” because they fail to meet the new “reasonable observer” test. Thus, rather than clarifying the outer limits of Dutra, the court simply added more confusion to this area of law.

© Copyright 2013 John E. Kawczynski. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. This article will appear in an upcoming issue of Benefits Review Board Service—Longshore Reporter (LexisNexis).