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It May Float, But it's Not a Boat

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 16, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that practical possibilities trump their theoretical counterparts.

In a 7-2 decision, the Court found that a floating home didn't qualify as a "vessel" because "a reasonable observer ... would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water."

(Sidebar: We basically reached the same result when we previewed this case in September.)

Fane Lozman and the city of Riviera Beach, Florida, argued for years over whether his former home -- a "60-by-12-foot floating two-story home, which featured French doors and a staircase but no motor or rudder" -- qualified as a vessel. After unsuccessful efforts to evict him from a local marina, the city brought a federal admiralty lawsuit in rem against the floating home and sought a maritime lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass.

The city eventually bought and destroyed the home when it was being auctioned off to satisfy a judgment against Lozman. The maritime law challenge, however, endured.

This week, the Supreme Court validated Lozman's argument that floating is not the same as boating. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer noted,

To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges, or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not "vessels," even if they are "artificial contrivances" capable of floating, moving under tow, and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so.

The critical element for the majority was whether an artificial contrivance was a practical means of conveyance on the water. The majority observed that Lozman's floating home had "no other feature that might suggest a design to transport over water anything other than its own furnishings and related personal effects" and "nothing about the home ... could lead a reasonable observer to consider it designed to a practical degree for 'transportation on water.'" While Lozman's home may have been theoretically capable of traveling on water, such travel was not practical.

Consider this decision to be the Supreme Court's version of the duck test. If a contrivance looks like a boat and moves like a boat, then it's probably a boat. The good news? This legal duck test should generate more work for admiralty lawyers arguing over how a reasonable person could perceive a floating structure.

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