In a decision that could affect boat owners throughout Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on January 15 that a houseboat permanently attached to a marina in Riviera Beach was not considered a vessel, but a home.
The result: Under U.S. maritime law, the city had no authority to confiscate and destroy the houseboat.
Fane Lozman, a former marine pilot, bought the 60-by-12-foot, two-story houseboat in 2002, had it towed it to Riviera Beach, and docked it at a marina.
Riviera Beach seized and demolished the houseboat after Lozman refused to pay more than $3,000 in dockage fees. The ensuing legal battle has lasted more than six years.
According to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there are nearly one million registered recreational boats in Florida, and up to one million unregistered water vessels.
According to a news report of the Supreme Court decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that not every floating structure could be considered a vessel. Examples given of non-vessels were a plastic dishpan, a wooden washtub, a swimming platform on pontoons, a door taken of its hinges, a large fishing net, and Pinocchio when inside the whale.
Riviera Beach had appropriated Lozman’s home after resisting a court order charging him dockage fees amounting to $3,040, and destroyed it after being unable to sell it.
The decision made on Tuesday reversed a lower-court ruling upholding the fees, and paves the way for Lozman to seek monetary compensation.
Pamela Ryan, city attorney of Riviera Beach, said in a statement she was disappointed with the ruling but accepts it, and that the city will revise its marina policies.
A key to the decision was the definition of “vessel.” Lozman argued his houseboat was not a vessel and not covered by maritime law, as it lacked typical seafaring features such as a GPS device and a motor. His houseboat also needed land-based sewer lines and required an extension cord for power.
Florida has the highest number of recreational boats in the country, and it also leads the nation in the number of people killed and injured in boating accidents.