Tangle with Fane Lozman at your own risk. The city of Riviera Beach, Fla., did in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Was Lozman’s floating home a vessel? By a 7-2 vote, the justices agreed with him that it was not.
The retired millionaire Chicago commodities trader says the Jan. 15 decision vindicates his belief that the boxy two-story structure with no engines or steering was no vessel, although the decision did not save it from the landfill. U.S. marshals seized it three years ago under admiralty law for what the city said was $3,039 in back marina rent.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lozman says. “Three armed federal marshals came to my home, broke down the door and took it under tow. I was made homeless. That shouldn’t happen in America. Even now it makes my blood boil.”
Click play to watch Lozman talk about the case on Fox News Channel.
Lozman says the city tried to evict him from the marina because he couldn’t comply with a new rule requiring tenants to have a working engine and, when he wouldn’t leave, the city had his home seized by the marshals for failing to pay his rent. He argued in district court that his home was not a vessel and, therefore, was not subject to seizure. The court ruled against him, so marshals auctioned it to the high bidder, Riviera Beach, which destroyed it.
Click play to watch Lozman get thrown out of a 2007 Riviera Beach city council meeting.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court finding that Lozman’s home — a 60-by-12-foot, two-story plywood structure with a flat bottom, 10-inch-deep rectangular hull and no motors, generator, batteries, rudder or steering — met the federal standard for a vessel: “every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation over water.”
The court said Lozman’s home could float and be towed and its power cable, water hose and lines could be disconnected, so it could be moved and therefore was a vessel.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said the 11th Circuit’s interpretation was too broad.
“To state the obvious, a wooden washtub, a plastic dishpan, a swimming platform on pontoons, a large fishing net, a door taken off its hinges or Pinocchio (when inside the whale) are not ‘vessels,’ even if they are ‘artificial contrivances’ capable of floating, moving under tow and incidentally carrying even a fair-sized item or two when they do so,” Breyer wrote.
He said the test for a vessel is whether the structure’s physical characteristics and what it typically does suggest to a “reasonable observer” that “to any practical degree” the structure was designed to transport people or things on the water.
Lozman’s home flunked that test.
On April 1 that same appellate court in Atlanta reinstated a lawsuit that Lozman filed against Riviera Beach in 2008 seeking damages for allegedly violating his civil rights.
Look for a complete report in the June issue of Soundings.