What is a vessel? Supreme Court takes up the question

Posted on Written by Michael LaBella

Here is a quote one wouldn’t expect from the U.S. Supreme Court: “You could take an inner tube and … paste a couple of pennies on the inner tube. Now it carries things. There are things on the inner tube, and it floats.” But that’s what Justice Elena Kagan said as members of the high court debated what constitutes a “vessel.”

The debate was about a case being brought to the Supreme Court that could cause banks to stop making boat loans, says Don Parkhurst, legislative committee chairman for the National Marine Bankers Association.

The case gets at the integrity of maritime laws that pre-date the United States of America, Parkhurst says.

It began when a man who built a floating home began arguing that it should not be considered a vessel because it is not a boat, but merely a floating house.

“The problem is, that flies in the face of hundreds of years of maritime law,” Parkhurst says. “If they change the way we define a vessel under admiralty law, then all of a sudden banks have a problem because our Preferred Ships Mortgage might not be any good on those boats. If there is suddenly gray area around ‘what is a vessel,’ you might have financing disappear on boats because lenders couldn’t be sure they could go repossess the boat if a guy stopped making payments on it.”

“The validity of our lien could be affected,” Parkhurst added.

Last week, the Supreme Court made its first attempt to hash out the answer to the question: “What constitutes a vessel?”

“We were kind of surprised this thing got to the Supreme Court,” Parkhurst says. “It was interesting listening to the judges because it seemed like they were surprised it got there, too.”

The court will reconvene on the matter in June.

Click here for an Insurance Journal article providing background to the case and here for court transcripts.

— Reagan Haynes


8 comments on “What is a vessel? Supreme Court takes up the question

  1. Phil Friedman

    The decision could also affect Longshoremen’s protections and maritime liens for goods and services provided, not to mention the reverse side of the coin, which includes the regulation of near-derelict, effectvely immobile boats moored alongshore and being used as houses. Hopefully, if SCOTUS decides not to send the case back down, it will stick with a definition that makes everything that floats and is not permanently attached to shore a “vessel.”

    Phil Friedman

  2. David Foley

    As a marine surveyor in southern Florida, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of “house boats” with and withour a means of propulsion. Not one client ever put forth the arguement that theirs was not a boat.

  3. Peggie Hall

    Apparently Justice Kagan and the rest of the SCOTUS justices never bothered to find out how the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) defines a “vessel:”

    “includes every description of watercraft or other artificial contrivance used, or capable of being used, as a means of transportation on the waters of the United States.”

    Seems to me that would rule out any innertubes with pennies glued to ’em. Also seems to me that also pretty much settles the question of whether permanently moored floating structures never designed to be used as transportation are “vessels”…they aren’t. Or if they somehow determine through some weird convoluted logic that they are, that would turn floating docks into “vessels!”

  4. Gary Edelman

    You have a couple of hundred years of “reparian rights” cases
    that declares a “navigable waterway” anything that can float an
    inner tube at the 100 year high flood. So in legal precendence
    the inner tube actually has a lot of standing.

  5. St. George Pinckney

    Some years ago, the Supremes ruled that in case of definitions, the Federal regulatory definition will apply. I am no lawyer, but the case involved the FAA and definition of an ultralight. Was it an airplane? (It is not.)

  6. Susan Smith

    This goes beyond financing and insuring floating houses. All of our civilian law is based on maritime law. Our social security numbers are our bill of lading numbers and we are treated as maritime property. Jordan Maxwell explains this thoroughly in his videos. There is a reason you pass a railing to go on trial. This is the same as boarding a vessel and it is what gives the captain or judge power to execute maritime law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments Policy.

Vote Today

What's your favorite month on the water?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Login to Trade Only Today

Lost Password