South Florida Houseboat Jeopardizes Maritime Laws

By MarEx 2012-10-02 15:11:28

On Monday, Supreme Court Justices confronted a Florida floating home disagreement that could change U.S. maritime law. In 2009, the city of Riviera Beach used federal maritime law to have the structure towed away from the marina. The city claimed the home violated marina safety regulations and later had it destroyed.

The argument did expose possible larger stakes; it demonstrated the willingness of the justices to consider other scenarios ranging from inner tubes to rafts.

The homeowner, Fane Lozman, a 51-year old former Marine Corps officer, disagreed with the city of Riviera Beach, saying the city’s legal position stretched the definition of a vessel beyond common reasoning. Lozman said the boxy structure, which included French doors, no steering nor motor, was a legitimate home in every sense, with the exception that it floated.

The city’s legal representation asserted that Lozman’s “houseboat” was in poor condition and threatened the safety of others boats in the marina. Lozman also failed to insure his home and pay dockage fees.

Currently, it is up to the nation’s Supreme Court to decide if the federal government can legally seize a home because it floats. Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Fla., will test the essentials of what defines personal property in the U.S. and whether the state or federal courts have authority over structures in the water.

The verdict of this case could have many effects on businesses that operate on the water or people who live on it.

Riviera Beach’s attorney continued on to state that the city faced a very real threat of being sued if the uninsured houseboat caused damage. According to The Miami Herald, he said, “Our position is that the houseboat is a vessel … because it floats, moves and carries people or things on water.”

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. questioned whether the city would also organize federal law to control inner tubes. They carry people on water, but most of the body of a person would be underwater was the counter- argument.

This case has prompted justices to suggest an array of other water vessels that could potentially be subject to regulation under the city’s principle.

The Obama administration is agreeing with Lozman, contending that the test of whether a structure can be regulated as a vessel depends on its “objective purpose or function,” rather than whether it can float.

The court’s final decision on what a vessel is will affect the actions of a number of federal groups, including the Labor Department and the Coast Guard, administration attorneys said.