Case Before US Supreme Court Will Determine When A Vessel Is A Vessel… Or Will It?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

A lawsuit lies before the United States Supreme Court and stands to have far-reaching implications in determining when a vessel, and those who work on it, or inhabit it, are subject to the protections afforded to seamen and passengers under maritime law. In a Forbes article written by journalist Daniel Fisher, the following point is made:

When a customer steps aboard Pinnacle Entertainment’s Boomtown Belle II docked across the Mississippi from New Orleans, the 380-foot floating casino is a riverboat. She’s registered with the Coast Guard and Pinnacle has access to up to $1.5 billion in loans under a federal law that facilitates mortgages on ships. But if that customer slips and falls, or has too much to drink and crashes her car, the Boomtown Belle II ceases to be a boat at all. In court, she’s an extension of the land, where federal maritime law does not apply.

So what, exactly, constitutes a vessel? Must a vessel regularly move from place to place? Two lower courts disagree: The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that drunken gamblers have no standing to sue in certain situations under a Louisiana law. The 11th Circuit in Atlanta has held that anything that can move over water, even to its own detriment, is a vessel.
It’s a very important issue because workers aboard vessels – crew members or seamen – are afforded special protections under the law, including protections under the Jones Act. Other workers who are not Jones Act seamen fall under state workers compensation schemes or, in the case of those who work in ports, the Longshore and Harbor Workers Act. In any event, those compensation schemes are much more restricted than the Jones Act and other remedies available to seamen.

Maritime lawyers are experience in representing seamen in relation to maritime labor law in claims arising from alleged employer negligence or misconduct. However, because of the difficulties in identifying what is a vessel, it is not always apparent who is a seaman. For instance, is a construction worker, working to build a bridge while standing aboard a floating platform for the vast majority of his employment a seaman?

The man who filed the original suit now before the United States Supreme Court owned a houseboat which has been docked in several ports, and local government officials have been angered by his arguing which laws apply, and as to his uncovering alleged corruption by government officials. He has been responsible for the downfall of multiple local government officials.

In Riviera Beach, he was at the center of an issue that was a hot issue nationally at the time: Whether governments can seize land via eminent domain for private development on the pretext that the newly redeveloped land would result in additional tax revenue for the municipality or county, resulting in what could be construed as the greater public good, even if at the expense of previous inhabitants, developers, and entrepreneurs who hadn’t, theoretically, done anything wrong. Riviera Beach settled a lawsuit that alleged violation of open meeting laws, brought by Mr. Lozman, owner of the houseboat docked there.

The city of Riviera Beach obtained a federal order to have the house towed, then the city bought it at auction, and had it destroyed. One possible outcome in the case before the United States Supreme Court is that the lawsuit may just not be valid, since it’s original subject—Mr. Lozman’s house—has ceased to exist.

Parties are willing to fight so hard over the legal distinctions that surround whether maritime law applies. Cruise ship lawyers are watching the case closely to see if the Court’s ruling will affect in any way the rights of seamen or passengers. It is a case that stands to affect the rights of injured passengers and crew aboard vessels for years to come.