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U.S. Supreme Court

Pinocchio is not a vessel subject to US maritime law, and neither is floating home, SCOTUS says

Posted Jan 15, 2013 11:02 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A floating home that can't propel itself is not a "vessel" subject to federal maritime law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a 7-2 opinion.

The ruling on Tuesday is a victory for Fane Lozman, whose floating home was seized by the Florida town of Riveria Beach after the municipality unsuccessfully sought to evict him from the marina. The town relied on the Federal Maritime Lien Act allowing seizure of a vessel to pay necessary expenses. At issue was the meaning of vessel, defined by federal law as including “watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

In his majority opinion (PDF), Justice Stephen G. Breyer said Lozman’s boat did not fall within the definition. It had no rudder or steering mechanism, it had no ability to propel itself, and it depended on land connections for electricity, he said. The boat could travel through water only when towed.

“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 contrivance[s]' capable of floating, moving under tow, and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so.”

Dissenting Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony M. Kennedy said the case should have been remanded for additional fact finding. The case is Lozman v. Riviera Beach.

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