Page 67

Supreme Court Rejects Florida Man’s Houseboat Appeal – Wins Landmark Case but Loses Compensation By Steve Morrell

I

n April, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Florida man’s latest appeal in a landmark case that involved a ruling about his houseboat that changed the definition of floating structures across the nation. The case started over 10 years ago. The houseboat owner, Fane Lozman, had his houseboat towed to the Riviera Beach Marina in 2006. Amid the city wanting to build a luxury development at the marina, a fight ensued whereby the city—after putting a lien on the houseboat, based on maritime law—tried to evict Lozman and took him to court, which ruled in favor of the city, whereby Lozman’s “boat” was purchased by the city at auction and immediately destroyed (along with Lozman’s furniture). Lozman said they had no right because it wasn’t a boat but a house, and they couldn’t put a lien on it in that situation. The city said it was a vessel and had every right under maritime law. The city won in a local court. Lozman appealed and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. The decision determined that not all floating structures are vessels and the ruling affected structures around the country, even floating casinos. The ruling determined that the city had no right to take the houseboat under maritime law. After the ruling, a U.S. District judge ordered the city to pay Lozman $7500 for the houseboat the city destroyed. Lozman said the judge used a vessel appraisal and not a real estate appraisal to determine the value of the home. The judge’s ruling was upheld by the court of appeals. Lozman said that building contractors told him it would cost $170,000 to replace the houseboat, which was a two-story structure with French doors. Along with the legal fees, Lozman was seeking a total of $365,000. Riviera Beach argued that it should not be forced to pay Lozman because it was acting in good faith under the applicable law at the time, which was before the Supreme Court decision. Many have questioned that reasoning, saying that the city’s action of immediately taking and destroying the houseboat was not acting in good faith in any sense of the word. Derelict vessels are regularly destroyed, but they are always truly derelict. Lozman’s houseboat was in prime condition, yet the city destroyed it anyway. The latest ruling by the Supreme Court rejected Lozman case, leaving the lower court ruling to stand, denying any payment by the city to Lozman. “How can you go to the Supreme Court and win and have nothing to show for it? What kind of example does that set?” Lozman asked. The Landmark Decision Defining a Vessel The original Supreme Court decision that ruled in Lozman’s favor defined more clearly what a vessel was and what it wasn’t. The Court of Appeals argued that the home was a

News & Views for Southern Sailors

Fane Lozman towing another houseboat after the Supreme Court ruled in his “vessel” since it was favor. Before the decision, houseboats capable of being used were considered vessels and not homes. “as a means of trans- But he still did not receive compensation portation on water,” for his houseboat that the city of Riviera because it could float Beach (FL) confiscated and quickly and proceed under destroyed, even though it was in prime condition.

tow, and it was then being used as transportation. The Supreme Court said that that definition for a vessel was too broad, since the houseboat was not designed to be used as transportation, had no rudder, steering, propulsion or other items that make it a “vessel.” The Court refined and clarified the definition of what a vessel is and the ruling has had repercussions through the nation. Thousands of people live on houseboats, and since they are now not defined as vessels, they are now not clearly subject to maritime law. For example, a worker who works on such a structure cannot claim legal rights that a merchant sailor might have. The same goes for floating casinos and many other similar structures that were formerly considered subject to maritime law—along with all the advantages and disadvantages that go with that. But the decision also left many unanswered questions, because it left room for gray areas, with one judge stating, “Borderline cases will always exist.” That means the complete definition of what is and what isn’t a “vessel” can still be determined by future cases. Lozman’s Stilt House Community Lozman continues his endeavour to promote homes on the water and purchased 25 acres of mostly submerged land along the ICW off Singer Island—which is in Riviera Beach. He plans to build a stilt house community over the submerged part of his land and asked the city to give him addresses for the property. The city didn’t like the development, so it refused to do so, which resulted in Lozman taking the city to court. The court ruled in his favor in November, and the city had to grant him the addresses. Just before the ruling, the city cut down mangroves and sea grapes on his property, calling it a “trimming.” Lozman called what they did disgusting, saying they went too far. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the city went beyond the definition of “trimming” and faulted the city for not getting a permit. The DEP ended up supervising a cleanup of the work and required the city to come up with a restoration plan. In the meantime, Lozman said he will continue to fight corruption in Palm Beach County. Lozman, an ex-Marine who made money developing financial trading software, maintains that with rising sea levels, floating homes—and stilt homes, too, it appears—are the way of the future. SOUTHWINDS

December 2017

65

Southwinds December 2017  

A free, printed sailing magazine reporting on sailing in the southeast U.S: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Missi...

Southwinds December 2017  

A free, printed sailing magazine reporting on sailing in the southeast U.S: Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Missi...