Crisis Averted: The Supreme Court Rejects a Subjective Vessel Status Test in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach

Caroline E. Frilot | Comment

Envision Tom, Huck, and Jim in a bathtub paddling down the Mississippi River– is the bathtub a vessel? Common sense would tell us that the bathtub could not possibly be classified as a “vessel.” In recent years, however, many courts have interpreted precedent in such a broad manner as to allow these three famed fictitious adventurers travelling down the Mississippi in a tub to fit the vessel definition. On January 15, 2013, the United States Supreme Court put an end to this absurd possibility. In Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida, the Court concluded that an unusual floating home was not a vessel because a “reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would not consider it to be designed to any practical degree for carrying people or things on water.” After the Lozman decision, the blowback from the maritime law community was strong and immediate. Some practitioners lamented that the “reasonable observer” test will open “the litigation floodgates” with respect to specialized floating equipment; others simply called the decision a blunder.

This Comment will examine the Supreme Court’s analysis of the vessel status question and will suggest that the effects of the decision will not be as far-reaching as the maritime law community initially perceived. This Comment will also analyze the roots of the vessel status issue, indefinitely moored casino boats, and discuss the effect Lozman will have on determining whether such watercraft are vessels.