When Is a House a Boat? Supreme Court Considers Riviera Beach Case

BY ADAM FISCHER — The United States Supreme Court concluded its first day of the 2012 session with the South Florida-originated case of Lozman v. Riveria Beach. Fane Lozman, a wealthy former commodities trader, owned a floating home on the Riveria Beach Marina. The home was not a houseboat; rather it was more of a floating structure with no engines, no ability to steer, and no navigation tools. Lozman leased the area from the marina for a monthly fee. Shortly after moving to the marina, Lozman sued the city in an attempt to prevent it from redeveloping the area. Lozman was successful and the redevelopment plan was abandoned. In what Lozman claims was retaliation for his lawsuit, the City attempted unsuccessfully to evict him. 

The city then passed new regulations requiring the residents of the marina to have insurance, show proof of valid registration, comply with sewage restrictions, and be able to evacuate in case of an emergency. Lozman failed to comply with the new restrictions and the city filed suit in admiralty in the Southern District of Florida for trespass and put a lien on Lozman’s property. The District Court issued a warrant for the arrest of the home, which was subsequently towed to Miami.

The Southern District of Florida determined that Lozman’s home was a vessel for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction and further held that he was trespassing. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Now, Lozman’s case gives the United States Supreme Court the opportunity to dust out a musty corner of maritime law and clarify what, exactly, consitutes a “vessel” subject to federal admiralty jurisdiction.

While Lozman’s case may be near and dear to the hearts of admiralty buffs, the Justices found in it a rare opportunity for humor in the nation’s highest court. For example, the Chief Justice asked the city whether an inner tube constitutes a vessel.  Justice Bryer also made references to Styrofoam sofas as he attempted to discern when something is capable of transport.

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