Supreme Court Sides With Homeowner: Just Because It Floats Doesn’t Mean It’s A Boat

It’s always fun when judges get a bit creative in how they phrase decisions, and in the case of a fight over whether a floating home counts as a boat, and would therefore be regulated under federal admiralty laws, the U.S. Supreme Court got pretty sassy. The court sided with the owner of a floating home, saying just because it floats, doesn’t make it a boat. 

This case didn’t just matter to the home’s owner — anyone who runs floating businesses like casinos, restaurants and hotels were watching the fight play out. If those structures are considered vessels, they’d have to pay certain taxes and be regulated by admiralty laws concerning safety and employment as well.

Writing for the majority in a 7-to-2 decision (via the New York Times), Justice Stephen G. Breyer described the home as “a house-like plywood structure with French doors on three sides.” It included a bedroom, sitting room, closet, kitchen and a stairway leading to second-floor office.

The home was the subject of a dispute over dockage fees in 2006 when it was parked at a marina in Florida. That fight lead to a lawsuit under federal admiralty laws.

The owner of the structure argued that the court didn’t have the right to regulate his home because it wasn’t a boat or other vessel. In other words, it isn’t a “watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on water.”

A federal appeals court had ruled against the man, but the Supreme Court says that court had approached the issue too broadly, and that “anything that floats” doesn’t count as a boat. Here comes the sassy part!

“To state the obvious,” Breyer wrote, “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.’ ”

Bringing Pinocchio into the discussion just takes things to a whole new level.

The justices added in the decision that if an average person would look at a structure and say “hey, that’s a good way to transport myself on water” instead of “hey, that’s a house,” that’s the key.

Two judges dissented, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor saying this “floating doesn’t mean boating” approach made for a “novel and unnecessary” new standard for determining what a vessel is.

It May Float, but a Home Isn’t a Boat, Justices Rule [New York Times]