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Lozman v. Riviera Beach: When is a floating structure a “vessel”?
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, No. 11-626 (U.S. Jan. 15, 2013), holding that a floating house is not a “vessel” subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction. That ruling resolves a split in the circuits with implications for regulation of and litigation involving casinos, hotels, restaurants, and similar structures.
Kerri Barsh of GT Miami, co-chair of GT’s National Environmental Practice, represented the successful petitioner, Mr. Lozman, as part of a team led by Jeffrey Fisher of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
Mr. Lozman had a floating house with a flat bottom, no engine, no steering mechanism, and a design that relied on shore connections for power and the like. He moored the house at a marina owned by Riviera Beach. The City sued the house in rem under federal admiralty jurisdiction and prevailed.
In order for the City to have prevailed, the house had to have been a “vessel” within the meaning of the Rules of Construction Act, 1 U.S.C. § 3. Specifically, the house had to be “capable” of being “a means of transportation on water.” The courts of appeals had split on whether the theoretical ability to transport people or things by being towed was sufficient, or whether the design of the structure had to make the structure practically capable of transporting things on water. Board of Comm’rs of Orleans Levee Dist. v. M/V Belle of Orleans, 535 F.3d 1299 (11th Cir. 2008)(floating is enough); De La Rosa v. St. Charles Gaming Co., 474 F.3d 185 (6th Cir. 2006)(floating casino is not a vessel). The Supreme Court resolved the conflict in favor of a practicality test focused on the design of the structure. The Court ruled in favor of Mr. Lozman that the house was not a “vessel.”
The opinion may be found by clicking here.
Briefs may be found posted here.