Practically speaking, a houseboat is still a vessel. But the same is not true for every floating house. And just when we thought that the highest tribunal in the land had a fast hold on its commitment to expanding the definition of a vessel, the Supreme Court issues a holding that not only creates confusion by curtailing its existing definition, but also indicates a new method for determining if a floating structure is, in fact, a vessel.(1) Owners of residences afloat throughout the United States admiralty jurisdiction, now wonder, “Is my houseboat a vessel?” Houseboat owners, you are not alone! Maritime attorneys and judges alike try to answer the same question secondary to the Supreme Court’s recent contribution to the ever-developing jurisprudence attempting to define a vessel.
The controversial subject of the Supreme Court’s latest vessel status pronouncement arose in 2006 when Fane Lozman docked his 60’x 12’ floating home in a marina owned by the City of Riviera Beach, Florida. Lozman’s abode — equipped with French doors on 3 sides, a sitting room, bedroom, closet, kitchen, and an office — remained at the Riviera Beach Marina until the City, despite the absence of admiralty jurisdiction, filed an in rem suit against the vessel, purchased the home at auction, and destroyed it. The district court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals both found admiralty jurisdiction to exist holding that the home was a vessel. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals finding that Fane Lozman owned nothing more than a floating house.