New Supreme Court Case May Determine Fate of Admiralty Law

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach to decide whether a houseboat can be considered a “vessel” under federal law. This hearing may ultimately change federal maritime law and shed new light on the relevance of longstanding debates in jurisprudence and litigation.

The debate stems back to 1958, when the Harvard Law Review published an exchange of articles between Oxford professor H.L.A. Hart and Harvard professor Lon Fuller. Hart was the then leading exponent of “positivism,” a view that contends it is possible for a judge or citizen to ascertain the content of the law by examining the authoritative pronouncements of the lawmaker, while Fuller was the exponent of the “natural law” view, which claims that in order to know the content of the law, one must go further than merely tracing the law to an authoritative source. He believed policy and morality also inform legal interpretation.

In their debate, Hart introduced an example to support his view regarding a local law that forbids “vehicles in the park.” Hart made note that while the law forbids an automobile, it does not distinguish between other vehicles, such as bicycles or toy cars. Fuller agreed with this hypothetical “no vehicles” law, going further to explain that the law is only clear as to forbidding automobiles because the judge or citizen can see what the law aims to accomplish and can interpret it. Fuller maintained that the law is not even clear as to all types of automobiles, proposing the question: What would happen should someone in the park have a medical emergency? Would they be denied care and treatment because an ambulance is a type of automobile?

While it has been more than half-a-century since the Hart/Fuller exchange, the hypothetical no-vehicles-in-the-park law is still a topic of debate among jurisprudence scholars; the Lozman case is a real, modern-day example of the no-vehicle law. The issue in the case is whether the petitioner’s houseboat—or “floating residential structure” as the petitioner calls it—is a “vessel” as defined by federal law. If it is, then federal courts will apply federal admiralty law to conflicts involving the houseboat, as opposed to leaving those cases to state law. The question to be answered then is what is a vessel?

Congress defines a vessel as any “watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.” Since a houseboat is capable of being a means of water transportation, it might then be considered a vessel. However, the petitioner contends that since the floating home “was not designed for use in maritime transportation,” it does not necessarily serve as a means of transportation on water.

The Lozman case also casts doubt on the legitimacy of jurisprudential debate. Each side argues that both text and policy support their stance. At this point, the need for an experienced maritime lawyer will come into play in order to ensure both sides are fully explored so the most logical decision can ensure.