WASHINGTON -- Fane Lozman, a self-described “corruption fighter” whose legal battle over his Riviera Beach floating home made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, won his case in a ruling that has wide implications for the nation’s maritime industry.
The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision Tuesday, overturned an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, deciding the city of Riviera Beach could not regulate Lozman’s former home as a maritime vessel.
“I’ve been vindicated," Lozman said in a telephone interview. “My argument from day one when my home was arrested by three armed federal marshals was: ‘You guys don’t have jurisdiction, this is a state issue.’ ... At the end of the day I was right.”
In fact, when Riviera Beach seized and later destroyed Lozman’s floating home, no one likely expected it would create a legal fight that would lead to the nation’s highest court. But they may have underestimated Lozman, a former Marine Corps officer.
Lozman, 51, had made his fortune in the commodities trade in Chicago and built a reputation for civic activism in North Bay Village and Riviera Beach.
“My hobby is fighting political corruption, trying to remove politicians that my investigations show are corrupt, and I take credit for removing three North Bay Village commissioners and two North Bay Village mayors from office,” Lozman, who now lives in both North Bay Village and Miami Beach, said in an interview in late September.
In the legal case that captured national attention from gambling companies with floating casinos and others, the Supreme Court concluded that Riviera Beach went too far when it used maritime law to seize and ultimately destroy Lozman’s floating home. Besides giving Lozman a personal victory, the ruling clarifies and narrows how government agencies can deploy maritime law.
“But for the fact that it floats, nothing about Lozman’s home suggests that it was designed to any practical degree to transport persons or things over water,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.
Instead, Breyer stressed, Lozman’s dockside home was “a house-like plywood structure” that differed “significantly from an ordinary houseboat” in ways large and small. Maritime law only applies, under the court’s new ruling, if “a reasonable observer, looking to the home’s physical characteristics and activities, would consider it designed to a practical degree for carrying people or things over water.”
The decision finalizes the debate of whether a floating structure that is indefinitely moored, receives power and other utilities from shore and is not intended to be used in maritime transportation or commerce constitutes a “vessel” under the U.S. Code of Laws, thus triggering federal maritime jurisdiction. Among the implications: owners of floating homes usually must pay property taxes, as Lozman did, while those owning vessels under federal maritime law do not.
In addition, the standards differ on what kinds and amounts of damages can be awarded in personal-injury lawsuits. And there are different federal rules for employment disputes and compensation for workers injured on the job.
The issue matters, for instance, to the American Gaming Association members that filed a legal brief siding with Lozman. The gambling companies feared that if Riviera Beach prevailed, then other agencies could likewise impose new maritime law restrictions on the 60-plus “riverboat” gambling facilities docked in states like Mississippi and Missouri.