Supreme Court Splits Over Meaning of “Vessel”

November 25, 2013

The word “vessel” appears in practically every maritime decision and is usually a basis for admiralty jurisdiction. Because under maritime law a vessel is given personification, it can be sued, arrested, and put up a bond to be released, like a person. This is important because when the owner cannot be found in the jurisdiction, a claimant can sue the vessel as security.

What qualifies as a “vessel” under maritime law may be anything from a rowboat to an ocean liner and all sorts of contrivances that float in navigable waters and are capable of transportation—but not all. For example, a floating casino permanently tied to a dock is not a “vessel.” A motorized houseboat is a “vessel.” A vessel loses its personality while in a floating dry dock, and the dry dock is also not a “vessel.”

The U.S. Supreme Court this year grappled with the issue of whether a house built on a float capable of being towed between marinas where it was docked for long periods is a “vessel.” The Court said it took a practical rather than a theoretical approach:  Would a reasonable observer looking at the floating home consider it “designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water?” The home had no means of propulsion, no power, no steering mechanism and French doors instead of watertight portholes. In the majority’s view, it was not designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water.

The word “vessel” is defined in the Rules of Construction Act as an “artificial contrivance capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.” The U.S. Supreme Court focused on “capable” and “transportation on water.”

Two dissenting justices objected to the creation of the novel “reasonable observer” standard because in their view, it introduced a vague subjective component that could lead to more confusion. As part of their dissent, they would have remanded the case to get more evidence. (Lozman v. City of Rivera Beach).

This article is from Montgomery McCracken’s Fall/Winter 2013 Maritime and Transportation Newsletter.

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