Charles de Garmo of Sewall’s Point is a graduate of Quinnipiac (Conn.) University and has a Coast Guard master’s license.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
It’s going to be an interesting several weeks in the U.S. Supreme Court. If you’re a boater you’re going to find out if you own a boat or if it is really a house.
It seems that a man in Rivera Beach is testing the Supreme Court to determine if his plywood-shelled, two-story structure with no propulsion, no navigational gear, no rudder or sail is a boat or a house.
This case has a history dating back to at least 2009, when Fane Lozman was living in his plywood structure while docked at a marina in Rivera Beach. The town fathers wanted to clean up the waterfront (including getting rid of Lozman’s 56-foot house-vessel) to build a waterfront shopping area. Lozman claims the structure is a house and should not have been confiscated, sold at auction, bought by Rivera Beach and then demolished.
Maritime laws were created with unique statutes different from land law, mostly because vessels are able to leave quickly in the dead of night with unpaid invoices. If a creditor has a claim against a vessel, he can ask that the vessel be arrested, immediately seized by U.S. marshals and sold at auction to pay the moneys owed.
This is what happened to Lozman when the city claimed he owed $3,000 in back dockage and seized his house-vessel. Conversely, if a homeowner gets behind in payment on his mortgage the bank will initiate a long and drawn out foreclosure proceeding, which can be stopped. So, if Lozman can have the court rule in his favor that the structure is a house and not a vessel he can sue the town for destroying his house.
In short, Lozman claims this is a landlord-tenant disagreement not a maritime law issue.
Lozman filed suit in federal court where maritime disputes are heard and the court ruled the structure was a vessel. Lozman, former Chicago financial trader with deep pockets who represents himself, appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court ruled it was a vessel. No motor, no sail, no navigation aids, no state boat registration, no navigational lights; but it’s a vessel.
In legalese the court stated, “the status of a vessel does not depend in any way on either the purpose for which it’s intended.” So if it looks like a vessel, smells like a vessel and can be transported from one place to another by water then it must be a vessel even if you want to call it your house.
Once before the definition of a vessel came before the Supreme Court when it decided the “Super Scooper” that cut the tunnel under Boston harbor was a vessel. It all boils down to intent.
So you ask what does this have to do with Joe the boat owner? If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Lozman will Joe the boat owner be allowed to use a new boat as collateral for a bank loan? What would this do to the maritime industry in Florida? What would happen to all the vessels currently being used by the gaming industry as floating gambling halls? Who would monitor construction of boats and what rules would change if a boat is now a house? Would the local building inspector replace the Coast Guard?
My guess is that the Supreme Court will find some way not to rule on this one and pass it back to the appeals court to define intent. Either way it will be bouncing around in the courts for a while and the Florida as well as the nationwide marine industry will be having a lot of sleepless nights.