Byline: Fred Ransom
Regarding the issue of whether a houseboat is a vessel, I disagree with attorney David Weil’s analysis in the March 15 issue of The Log Newspaper’s “Ask a Maritime Attorney” column (“Supreme Court Ruling on Floating Homes vs. Boats Proves Perplexing”).
There were actually three issues before the court. The surface issue — “Is a houseboat a vessel?” — according to the letter of the law, it’s a vessel. So is a rubber ducky and a coffee cup.
The second issue is stated commonly by seventh graders: You can’t describe a symphony in English alone. However, one can listen to a symphony and thereby know what it’s like.
The court tried to listen to the symphony and, thus, made a distinction between a rubber ducky and a coffee cup. Hence, one could still effect a maritime lien against the coffee cup. I can see the headline: “Sheriff Arrests Empty Coffee Cup!”
The third issue concerns the purpose of law. At its best, it codifies some aspects of culture for reference, to smooth interaction and ease transmission of culture from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, some people use it as a weapon. This was the situation here.
The politicos in Riviera Beach used the law in an effort to bully the houseboat owner and simultaneously abuse the taxpayers, who received nothing in return for their expense. Do we want them to get away with this?
In the past, juries have occasionally found that a strict application of the letter of law would constitute an injustice and refused to apply it. Basically, the court did the same thing here, without saying so.
David Weil’s Reply:
In the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, concerning the use of a federal court civil arrest procedure to foreclose on a marina lien against a houseboat, the sole question before the court was whether the houseboat was properly characterized as a “vessel” under federal law. If it was not a vessel, it could not be subject to a maritime lien — and the federal arrest procedure would not be available to the marina. The court, in this case, held that the houseboat was not a vessel.
Mr. Ransom hit the nail on the head with his comments about the actions of the city of Riviera Beach. The fact that the city burned through literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money for legal fees to evict a houseboat from a city-owned marina is, in my opinion, unconscionable.
The Supreme Court said nothing about this issue, but it has from time to time skewed its opinion to fit the facts of a particular case without regard to the effect that it may have on the broader legal questions of the case. That may be what happened here. As for the more philosophical points, I disagree with Mr. Ransom — and with the Supreme Court. His reference to a floating coffee cup refers to the discussion held by the Court when it considered the language of the federal statute. “Vessel” is defined in 1 U.S.C. §3 as “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” This language is very straightforward, but the court came up with some wild hypotheticals and asked the lawyers in the case whether these things should be characterized as “vessels.”
The justices did ask whether an inner tube and a floating chair should be deemed “vessels” for the purposes of federal maritime jurisdiction, since they might technically comply with the statutory definition. On the surface, this seems like a thoughtful, practical approach to the problem. We don’t want any law to be taken to an absurd conclusion simply because it may be technically accurate. The problem, however, with the analysis presented by the court is that they are not extending their “practical approach” far enough.
It’s one thing to complain that it would be absurd to allow someone to assert a maritime lien against a coffee cup for the owner’s failure to pay for repair of the cup. But isn’t it even more absurd to think that someone would actually spend $40,000 to attempt such a bizarre stunt?
We live in a world where laws must be created and interpreted to address everyday problems rather than bizarre anomalies. Unfortunately, the court, in this case, issued a ruling designed to address bizarre anomalies rather than everyday problems. In the end, the houseboat was a marina tenant and the eviction of a marina tenant is an everyday problem. A coffee cup is not likely to be evicted from a marina.
As I noted in my column, the problem with the court’s analysis is that it opens the door to ambiguity, which in turn opens the door to expensive litigation. They completely ignored the fact that the houseboat was unquestionably a vessel while it was being towed on navigable waters for 200 miles, and they failed to establish any criteria to explain how or when it stopped being a vessel.
Lawyers make their money by arguing about ambiguity. That may help me to pay my mortgage, but it doesn’t help the maritime community in dealing with everyday problems.