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The Supreme Court Muddies the Water on What is a Vessel.

The question of what floating structures are "vessels" can be important in Jones Act and maritime tort cases. For example, the determination of whether an employee is a seaman and thus covered under the Jones Act is dependant on the employee's relation to a vessel in navigation.

The Act does not define the term "vessel in navigation," and there had been a split among the federal courts on the requirements for vessel status. This split was between those courts that looked to the design and use of the watercraft and those that looked to the actual transportation function of the craft.

This issue appeared to have been settled by the 2005 United States Supreme Court decision in Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co. This case involved a large floating platform that operated as a dredge removing silt from the ocean floor. Although largely stationary, and without its own means of propulsion, the dredge had navigation characteristics similar to traditional vessels, such as navigation lights, ballast tanks, and a dining area for the crew. Also, it was required to be registered and to comply with safety regulations issued by the United States Coast Guard and the United States Department of Transportation.

On these facts the Supreme Court held that a dredge was a vessel for Jones Act purposes. The Court adopted the broad definition of the term "vessel" as set forth a federal statute which requires that a watercraft be "used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water" to qualify as a vessel.

The reasoning in Stewart v. Dutra Const. Co. was subsequently followed by several lower court decisions holding various structures to be vessels, such as: 1) a barge used to provide temporary housing to employees hired to perform dredging work, 2) a spudded down cleaning barge, and 3) a casino barge. The trend among the courts following Stewart thus seemed to be that most structures that floated and had the capability of being used for transportation purposes would be considered vessels. This could potentially include floating dock barges and work platforms that are routinely used in the marine industry and that had not been held to be vessels by some earlier decisions.

What the Supreme Court giveth, however, it potentially taketh away. In its January 2013 decision in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach Florida, the Court seems to have backed off its expansive view of vessel status. This case involved a 60 by 12 foot floating home. It was a plywood structure with a sitting room, bedroom, closet, bathroom, and kitchen, along with a stairway leading to a second level with office space. It had an empty bilge space underneath to keep it afloat. It had been towed several times before being kept in a marina owned by the city of Riviera Beach. The city brought an admiralty lawsuit in rem against the home, seeking a lien for dockage fees and damages for trespass. In holding that the houseboat was not a vessel, it stated "a structure does not fall within the scope of this statutory phrase unless a reasonable observer, looking to the [structure's] physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water."

While the facts that the Court dealt with in Lozman appear to be unique, and arguable its application could thus be limited, because of the language the Court used, I am afraid that the opinion is potentially going to restrict vessel status. For example, I can see a lower court holding that a work platform is not a vessel. This decision, therefore, may limit the application of the Jones Act and the general maritime law and thus the ability of maritime construction workers and others to recover tort damages.


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