Is a Floating Home Considered a Vessel Under Maritime Law?

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There are many types of structures that float on water. Many times an issue arises whether a particular structure is considered a vessel under maritime law. There are significant consequences to being considered a vessel under federal maritime law. Whether maritime law governs a particular action will depend on whether the particular structure constitutes a vessel or not.

Maritime lawyer Brett Rivkind explains the conditions under which a floating home or other structure that floats on water may be considered a vessel under maritime law.

What Constitutes a “Vessel” Under Maritime Law?

In a Florida case, the city of Rivera Beach utilized federal maritime law in order to “arrest” what looks like a typical house except for the fact it was on the water at a marina. It was alleged that the presence of the house violated safety regulations of the marina. In order to utilize the legal principles that the city relied upon, the floating house had to be considered a “vessel” under the federal maritime law.

The homeowner responded by arguing the floating house did not constitute a vessel under the maritime law. The house did not have any steering mechanism or motor to propel it. It was basically a house in every sense, but on the water. This is different than some houseboats that are powered with engines and steering wheels and can be self-propelled through the waterways.

The case is very interesting because not only does the resolution of the issue of what constitutes a vessel affect claims such as injury claims filed by workers, or specific property rights, the gambling industry has a lot at stake with this particular issue that has made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. If this floating house is found to be a vessel, it may then be argued that dock-side casinos are vessels under the federal maritime law. This could have far-reaching implications on the casino business.

The United States Supreme Court recently had an oral argument regarding this case. It appears to be a very interesting case as it is received a lot of publicity, and it was reported that every justice appeared at the oral argument with hypothetical questions addressed to the city’s argument, which stretched to the logical conclusion, is any type of structure like this on the waterways is capable of moving people or things over water, which is the general test for determining something is a vessel or not. According to the city, since it was a floating home, it can be capable of moving people or things over water. This argument seems to be stretching to the limits the definition of a vessel, and is reported that the justices challenged this reasoning with questions, including the following;

Chief Justice John Roberts: How about an inner-tube or inflatable raft?
Justice Elena Kagan: Tape some coins to the inner-tube and now it’s moving money across the water- it is a vessel then?

Another interesting question that was reported to have been asked by Justice Stephen Breyer was: “Styrofoam sofas” or other “absurd things that have nothing to do with ships or vessels and really could be used theoretically to carry something on the water.” This interesting case is expected to result in a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States sometime by the end of June of 2013.

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