WASHINGTON — A house that floats on the water and has no power to move on its own is a home, not a vessel, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 7-2 decision upholds laws in California, Washington and other states that say floating homes that are attached to the shore and do not travel are governed by local laws applying to homes, not by federal admiralty law regulating ships and boats.
Homeowners are able to rely on an array of state and local laws that protect property owners, and, with this decision, the same is now true for the owners of moored casinos and restaurants. State laws give some protection to store owners for accidents and injuries suffered by their customers or their employees. But federal admiralty law gives more generous protections to sailors and harbor workers who are injured working on vessels.
In Tuesday’s opinion, the high court narrowed somewhat the definition of a vessel.
It is not “anything that floats,” explained Justice Stephen G. Breyer, but something “actually used for transportation.”
The court ruled for Fane Lozman, who had parked his two-story floating home at a marina in Riviera Beach, Fla. City officials tried to evict him from the marina and later sued him under federal admiralty law over unpaid docking fees. They eventually seized the structure as an abandoned vessel and had it destroyed. In upholding this decision, a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta said the floating home was a vessel because it was capable of moving on the water, and indeed, had been towed several times, including one trip of 200 miles.
Lozman appealed, arguing his home should have been protected under ordinary real estate laws, not classified as a ship subject to being seized.
The Supreme Court, in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, agreed and said a “reasonable observer” looking at the plywood box home would conclude it was a home, not a vessel. It was not “designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water,” Breyer said. He noted the home had no rudder, no steering mechanism and no source of propulsion.