Christopher Kende of the Global Insurance Department authored this article in Droit Maritime Français (the French Maritime Law Review). In the landmark ruling Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, no. 11-629, decided January 15, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court departed from the traditional definition of a vessel as “anything that floats” to a more refined and complex test based on what the Court termed “the view of a reasonable observer” as to whether the structure involved is “designed to a practical degree for transportation on water.” The structure involved consisted of a “floating home”, made of plywood, with an empty bilge space underneath, and “French doors”, rendering it far more similar to a residence than a vessel. Based on a “reasonable observer” analysis, the Court determined that the structure was not a vessel because it was not designed to any practical degree for the transportation of persons, or things over water; it was lacking in a steering mechanism, with no capacity for propulsion and no ability to generate or store electricity. Although the Court contended that the test is objective, it can be observed that the threshold issue of whether a structure is a vessel and therefore subject to maritime jurisdiction should be more clearly defined, rather than dependent on the views of an external “observer” regarding whether the structure is “designed to a practical degree for the carrying of people or things over water.
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