January 17, 2013

When is a house not a boat?

 THE HIGHEST COURT IN THE LAND has ruled that a houseboat is a house, not a boat. The Supreme Court decided 7-2 that a gray, two-story craft about 60 feet long is not subject to maritime law.

That’s bad news for the the city of Riviera Beach, Florida, whose officials relied on maritime law to place a lien on the home for unpaid dockage fees and damages for trespass at a marina. The craft was later seized and destroyed.

The owner, Fane Lozman, argued that it was a house, which would have protected it from seizure under state law. And now the High Court justices have agreed with him.  He says he will ask the courts to reimburse him for the cost of the house(boat), including the furniture and personal possessions that were destroyed after it was impounded.

But is the Supreme Court right? Let’s be clear about this. The Inland and International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea define a “vessel” this way:

“The word ‘vessel’ includes every description of water craft, including nondisplacement craft and seaplanes, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, speaking for the majority, opined: “We believe that a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics, would not consider it to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water. And we consequently conclude that a floating home is not a vessel.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy dissented.  Sotomayor said the court had now created “a novel and unnecessary ‘reasonable observer’ reformulation . . . and errs in its determination.”

I agree with the minority. The maritime definition of a “vessel,” as quoted above, does not concern itself with practical degrees or with how a houseboat might look to a reasonable landlubber. It merely says a vessel has to be capable of being used as a means of transportation for humans or things. This particular craft was towed to the marina, so it must surely be capable of transporting humans or things (furniture and household goods) on water.  Indeed it had already done so.

According to the Associated Press, more than 5,000 Americans own floating homes, many in the Puget Sound area. Some look more like boats than houses, while others are definitely more house-like.  But now that the High Court has made it a subjective decision, relying on a “reasonable observer” to decide between house and boat, it becomes important for the court to define a “reasonable observer.”  For instance, is a landlubber who knows nothing about boats a reasonable observer?

I predict we haven’t heard the last of this.

Today’s Thought
Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
— Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

Tailpiece
A husband sneaked home at 3:30 a.m. to face a thousand words from his angry wife.
“So home is the best place after all,” she said.
“Dunno about that,” he replied, “but it’s the only place open.”

 (Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)  

1 comment:

mgtdOcean said...

So if I buy a barge then build a shack on deck, is it a house or vessel? How about if I buy an old ocean tug boat with blown motors and I live abord at a self made mooring, again vessel or house?
Oh well it's not like the Supreme Court hasn't made more than a few asinine rulings in it's history.