The court ruled for Fane Lozman, pictured in March 2012. (Alan Diaz / Associated Press )
WASHINGTON — A house that floats on the water and has no power to move on its own is a home, not a vessel, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 7-2 decision upholds laws in California, Washington and other states that say floating homes that are attached to the shore and do not travel are governed by local laws applying to homes, not by federal admiralty law regulating ships and boats.
The ruling will also affect operators of dockside casinos and restaurants, who will now be able to rely on the same state and local laws that protect property owners. State laws, for example, give some protection to store owners for accidents and injuries suffered by their customers or employees. But federal admiralty law gives more generous protections to sailors and harbor workers who are injured working on vessels.
In Tuesday's opinion, the high court narrowed somewhat the definition of a vessel.
It is not "anything that floats," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer, but something "actually used for transportation."
The court ruled for Fane Lozman, who had parked his two-story floating home at a marina in Riviera Beach, Fla. City officials tried to evict him from the marina and later sued him under federal admiralty law over unpaid docking fees. They eventually seized the structure as an abandoned vessel and had it destroyed. In upholding this decision, a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta said the floating home was a vessel because it was capable of moving on the water and, indeed, had been towed several times, including one trip of 200 miles.
Lozman appealed, arguing his home should have been protected under ordinary real estate laws, not classified as a ship subject to seizure.
The Supreme Court, in Lozman vs. City of Riviera Beach, agreed and said a "reasonable observer" looking at the plywood box home would conclude it was a home, not a vessel. It was not "designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water," Breyer said. He noted the home had no rudder, steering mechanism or source of propulsion.
The justices sent the case back to Florida, where Lozman can seek to recover a $25,000 bond taken out before his home was seized and destroyed.
"Our clients are thrilled. This 'reasonable observer' test may seem like an obscure technicality, but it's big news for hundreds of floating homeowners we represented in Sausalito and Seattle, and for hundreds of others throughout the nation," said Michelle Friedland, a lawyer in San Francisco. "They live in homes that are designed to remain stationary and are affixed to the land through electrical and other utility connections."
Judy Patterson, executive director of the American Gaming Assn., said the ruling "will have a positive impact on our industry, framing the right of riverboat casino operators and ensuring they do not face overly broad liability, as would have been the case if the Supreme Court had ruled the other way."
Breyer also said that a vessel, once moored, can lose the legal status that defines it as such. "For example, an owner might take a structure that is otherwise a vessel (even the Queen Mary) and connect it permanently to the land for use, say, as a hotel," he wrote.
In dissent were Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony M. Kennedy. They said Breyer's "reasonable observer" standard would probably cause confusion in the lower courts.