Supreme Court Rules on Standard for Determining What is a Vessel
The Supreme Court on January 15, 2013 issued an opinion in the Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida case involving a floating house moored at a marina. The house in question was not capable of independent movement, had no steering capability, no ability to generate or store its own power and was not used for transportation purposes. The Court resolved a split in the circuits on how to apply the definition of vessel and in the process created a new reasonable observer standard. The definition in question defines "vessel" as encompassing "every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on the water." 1 USC § 3. The Court found that it could "find nothing about the home that could lead a reasonable observer to consider it designed to a practical degree for 'transportation on water.'" The Court also noted the existence of state laws in Washington and California that treat "floating home" structures like ordinary land-based homes rather than like vessels. The Court noted that consistency with federal and state laws in this case "is a virtue that creates simplicity making the law easier to understand and to follow for lawyers and for nonlawyers alike." The U.S. opposed an "anything that floats" test because it would place an inspection burden upon the Coast Guard to inspect these structures.
For more, read NPR's reporting on the case or read the opinion and other filings including the National Marine Bankers Association's Amicus Brief.