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By John Ostapkovich

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The US Supreme Court this week issued a ruling that may help houseboat owners avoid a pretty serious consequence.

The high court ruled that a Florida town had erred in treating a man’s houseboat as a boat, confiscating it under Martime or Admiralty Law.

Rutgers-Camden Law Professor Steven Friedell, who treatise on Admiralty was cited by both sides in the case, is surprised it got this far.

“It looked an awful lot to me like a garden-variety dispute that belonged in state court where there would be a right to a jury trial,” Friedell says. “Instead, this was brought in Federal Court where unusual procedure the plaintiff can sue the boat itself as the defendant, seize it, arrest it.”

So now this defendant can sue for damages since the houseboat was destroyed, but Professor Friedell is uncertain how broadly to read the decision, given an earlier high court ruling that applied Martime Law to a dredger in Boston Harbor.

“Where the court sort of said, anything that floats on the water is Admiralty jurisdiction,” Friedell says. “In a way, this case could be read very narrowly as just cutting back on that. On the other hand, the case could be read more broadly, that not only this houseboat but all houseboats, maybe casino boats, they don’t belong within Admiralty jurisdiction.”

Professor Friedell says this case seemed to him more like a trailer park rent dispute, albeit with wet feet.

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