The U.S. Supreme Court sided with a former stock trader Tuesday, ruling that a Florida city wrongly took and destroyed his floating home, calling it a boat.
The 7-2 decision ends a long legal battle between Fane Lozman, an ex-Marine, and the city of Riviera Beach, Fla. over a 60-foot, two-story floating home that was seized by armed federal agents in 2009.
The agents were brought in following a rent dispute, when the city said the structure was actually a boat and subject to maritime law. The U.S. District Court agreed.
But in Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, allowing Lozman to return to the court and seek damages for his home being destroyed.
“I feel like I’ve levitated and am floating on a cloud,” Lozman says. “It’s too late to save my floating home, but I fought this battle for other floating home owners around the country.”
In its opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that just because a structure or object floats, it’s not necessarily a vessel.
Instead, the test of whether a structure is a boat or a fixed structure hinges on whether “a reasonable observer, looking to the [craft]’s physical characteristics and activities, would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water,” according to the decision.
The Supreme Court’s decision finally sets the record straight, across the country, on what is a boat and what’s a structure, says Jeffrey Fisher, law professor at Stanford Law School and member of Lozman’s legal team. Most of the jurisdictions with floating homes were clear that these were not boats, but the Supreme Court removes any doubt, he says. “It’s a total victory. The case is over. We win.”
Some worry, though, that the Supreme Court didn’t create a “bright line” that clearly defines what’s a boat and what’s a floating structure, says Martin Davies, professor of law at Tulane University.
The court found the owner’s “intent” doesn’t determine if it’s a boat or structure, but whether an observer looking at the object would see it as a boat or a structure, he says. That might be fine for floating homes like Lozman’s, which don’t look like boats and don’t have engines or steering, but it opens problems with moored objects that look like boats, as some river casinos do, Davies says.
“This is a test begging to be litigated,” he says. “This will produce more litigation.”
“We’re gratified the court rejected Mr. Lozman’s argument that the vessel owner’s subjective intent determines the status of the watercraft as a vessel. For marina operators, the message is clear: When in doubt, keep it out,” wrote David Frederick, attorney representing Riviera Beach, Fla., in an e-mailed response.
But for Lozman, the ruling gives him the ability to think about what’s next. He plans to return to District Court and ask for compensation for his home, furniture and legal fees, which he said reached the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I’m going to get another one (floating home) and put it back,” he says.