Several years ago, the City of Riviera Beach (“the City”) straddling the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) in Florida, arrested a houseboat under federal maritime law and demolished it. The homeowner, Mr. Lozman had lived on his houseboat for more than a dozen years under a lease with the City. The City had sent Lozman several eviction notices for deficiencies in the houseboat and failure to make certain payments.
The District Court of the Southern District of Florida found that the houseboat was a “vessel” for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction, that the vessel was delinquent in payments, put the vessel up for auction, the City bought it for the amount of its judgment and demolished it.
The court held that the houseboat met the definition of a “vessel”within the meaning of 1 U.S.C. s. 3; accordingly, federal maritime law applied despite the fact that the houseboat had been an “indefinitely moored” structure. It was still “capable” of transportation.
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court’s holding that Lozman’s houseboat constituted a “vessel” for purposes of maritime jurisdiction and that Lozman’s houseboat “trespassed” upon city property.
On January 15, 2013, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that Lozman’s houseboat was not a “vessel” for purposes of invoking maritime jurisdiction. Except for the fact that it floated upon the water, Lozman’s houseboat had no means of self-propulsion, no steering mechanism, an unraked hull, no means of storing or generating electricity, and no realistic means of transporting passengers or cargo.
Federal courts therefore have no jurisdiction over “houseboats” similarly configured and indefinitely moored. In general, federal courts have exclusive maritime jurisdiction over “vessels” like boats in navigable waters such as the Intracoastal Waterway. Although federal jurisdiction protects those who improve and work on boats by affording workers the right to arrest a vessel for unpaid work and enforce a lien for such charges as well as the right to seek damages for trespass on private property, asserting federal jurisdiction also brings into play the regulatory powers of the Coast Guard to insure public safety as well as other agencies working to protect the environment and other public interests.