Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Fane Lozman, a Marine turned multi-millionaire inventor turned thorn in the side of Riviera Beach officials, has won his long-running legal battle against the city over his floating home.
In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declared that Lozman’s 60-foot, two-story home that was once anchored at the Riviera Beach Marina was not a vessel. As Lozman has argued for years, the court ruled that the city shouldn’t have been able to seize it using centuries-old maritime law.
The decision sets the stage for Lozman to return to court to seek damages against Riviera Beach for destroying his home, which he valued at more than $50,000. He said he will also ask the city to reimburse him for more than $300,000 in legal fees he spent since the fight began nearly seven years ago.
“It’s an amazing day in my life,” said Lozman, who represented himself in the early stages of the legal battle. “Today is a day to celebrate that the legal process works. It shows if you’re a stubborn enough son of a b—— you can win. You have no idea what’s going through my mind. Just to actually get a reversal — it kind of blows your mind.”
City officials were understandably less effusive about the decision. “We are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling,” City Attorney Pamala Ryan said in a statement. “However, we respect and accept the decision, and we will abide by legal implications that flow from it.”
Maritime lawyers, who have been watching the case closely, said the ramifications are potentially far-reaching. In deciding the case, the high court struck down lower court rulings that turned on a simple concept that if it floats, it’s a boat.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said such an interpretation is overly broad. “Not every floating structure is a ‘vessel,’ ” Breyer wrote. “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.”
Instead, he wrote, the key is whether a “reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.” Because Lozman’s strange craft had no engine, no steering ability and could neither generate nor store electricity it clearly was not designed as a means to transport people or cargo, he said.
The test as outlined by Breyer, which came with a sharply worded dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is likely to spur additional litigation, predicted Boca Raton attorney Michael McLeod, chairman of the Admiralty Law Committee for the Florida Bar. By midday, his email box was filling up with messages from attorneys across the nation who said they would be advising marinas, marine bankers and others they represent to review their operations in light of the ruling. It could arguably be a factor in the types of vessels allowed to dock at marinas and the types of non-traditional craft that are approved for maritime loans. It could also affect how creditors can recover unpaid bills.
The distinction — what is and isn’t a vessel — is important because of laws that have developed since the nation’s founding to deal with the unique characteristics of boats, namely that they can be easily moved, leaving workers stranded or creditors unpaid. As a result, people have been given the power to “arrest” boats to recover debts. In some cases, that option may no longer be available.
To illustrate the import of the case, dozens of groups, such as the National Marine Bankers Association, the American Gaming Association, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, and Floating Home Associations in Seattle and Sausalito, Calif., filed briefs. Even the U.S. Solicitor General chimed in. He worried that if the court found Lozman’s home was a boat, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard and myriad other federal agencies could be forced to change policies and possibly increase manpower to regulate and inspect floating structures that were never intended for navigation.
Breyer acknowledged that the new test of what constitutes a boat isn’t exact. Admitting it is “neither perfectly precise nor always determinative, it is workable and consistent and should offer guidance in a significant number of borderline cases,” Breyer wrote.
Sotomayor disagreed. In a 12-page dissent, she countered that the court muddied the waters. “In its haste to christen Lozman’s craft a non-vessel (the court) delivers an analysis that will confuse the lower courts and upset our longstanding admiralty precedent,” she wrote.
Like McLeod, Lozman said the case’s legal questions are complex. His own legal path isn’t clear-cut. But, he said, he is prepared to do whatever he can to recover the money he lost simply because, he claims, the city wanted to silence him.
The high court noted that lower courts forced Riviera Beach to post a $25,000 bond which Lozman could seize if he ultimately proved the city wrong. Ryan made no mention of the bond in her prepared statement Tuesday. Instead, she said, the city would reimburse Lozman the $300 he spent filing the case with the nation’s high court and pick up some of his printing costs. City spokesman William Jiles said city officials aren’t certain about the fate of the bond.
Lozman said he’s not surprised the city isn’t ready to give up the fight. Vindictiveness has fueled the battle from the start, he said. Upset by his vociferous opposition to their failed plan to transform the poverty-wracked city into an upscale yachting community, Riviera Beach officials just wanted to get rid of him, he said. The easiest way was to use maritime law to tow his home out of the city.
“To punish someone just because they’re a city activist, that’s not what America is all about,” he said. “Where does the city get off saying we’re just going to squash this guy?”