Monday, August 8, 2022

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Is there a boating recession on the horizon, or did someone just have too many boats that they just forgot about the one on your property?

 American songwriter Jerry Vandiver in his catchy tune “Too Many Boats” sings “there is no such thing as too many boats.” But with the recent surge in the cost of living, together with fuel prices, storage/marina fees and maintenance costs associated with boat ownership, I hear rumblings about boats being abandoned.

In Florida, when I think of abandoned boats, I think of a dilapidated boat anchored near the shore with a slight list. But with the boating boom that went on during the pandemic, people talk about boats in fairly shipshape condition being abandoned.  Many people may have an interest in abandoned boats. There are waterfront property owners who look out their windows to see a boat stuck in the mangroves or washed onto there property after a storm. There are municipalities where a boat owner has not paid their slip or dockage fees. There are private marinas where an overnighter has disappeared leaving the boat behind, a long-term owner can not be contacted, or a credit card was recently declined. Then there are the banks and other lienholders with a security interest in the abandoned vessel.    

So what does one do with an abandoned boat on their property? Well depending on the circumstances, there are legal options to remove the abandoned boat from its current location and potentially other options to deal with it. While there are judicial options, such as arresting the vessel and asserting a claim against it in Federal Court, Florida provides a non-judicial option that does not involve the filing of a lawsuit, well at least at first.

Let us get the question of whether a boat is a vessel out of the way. Under applicable Florida Statutes a “Vessel” … “includes every description of watercraft, barge, and airboat, other than a seaplane on the water, used or capable of being used as a means of transportation on water.” Whether or not something is or is not a vessel has been litigated, and most certainly will be litigated again in the future. But if you are on Google researching what to do about an abandoned boat on your property or place of work, you probably are fairly certain you are dealing with a boat. And in most cases a boat is probably a vessel under Florida law. So there are a few questions that need to be answered to determine your options. The initial simple questions you need to answer are:

1.  Is the boat “abandoned property” under Florida law?

2.  Where is the boat located?

3.  What is your relationship to the boat?

For purposes of Florida Statutes a boat is abandoned if it falls into one of the three categories contained in the definition of a “derelict vessel.” These categories are:

1.  Boats that are in a wrecked, junked, or substantially dismantled condition upon any waters of this state.

2.  Boats at a port in this state without the consent of the agency having jurisdiction thereof.

3.  Boats that are docked, grounded, or beached up on the property of another without the consent of the owner of the property.

This is why where the boat is located and your relationship to the the boat matters. Not only will it impact whether or not the boat is abandoned, it most certainly impacts your options to deal with the boat moving forward. Unfortunately, it is not always a one size fits all solution to deal with an abandoned boat. Florida considers itself a title state, and the improper removal, disposal, or sale of a vessel may result in criminal and civil liability, which is why the assistance of an attorney to help determine a safe course of action is a must.

Most boats abandoned on waters of Florida are dealt with by the state or local municipality. For example, after a hurricane, the State of Florida may apportion emergency funds to remove abandoned or derelict vessels as part of disaster cleanup operations. Hillsborough, Manatee or Pinellas Counties might apportion extra funds to remove derelict vessels from local waterways as a part of a beautification project or to encourage more water-based recreation. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in general is tasked with identifying abandoned boats, initiating the removal process, and hiring the company tasked with removing the boat. However, the costs associated with removal, cleanup, or disposal of the abandoned boat, while initially paid for by the state or municipality, may be recovered from the owner of the vessel or the party determined to be legally responsible for the vessel being left on the water in a derelict condition. This is something to keep in mind. There are possible scenarios where an unsuspecting individual might be on the hook for these removal costs. If neither you nor that guy you sold the boat to off Craigslist properly filed the transfer of title paperwork with the state, you might still appear to be the owner responsible for removal costs. Another possible scenario is if you let a friend dock a boat at your place, and a thunderstorm blows it away because you were not checking to make sure it was secure. A third possible scenario is if you see an abandoned boat that you just must be the future owner of. There is a process for this, which I will discuss in the future.

The non-judicial process for a private property owner dealing with an abandoned vessel is similar to how a marina deals with a possessory lien. The general process for a private property owner is as follows:

1.  Written notice must be given to the vessel’s owner.

2.  Written notice must be given to each person or entity with a recorded security interest against the vessel.

3.  The required written notice must be made at least 60 days before the vessel is removed from the property.

One caveat is that the private property owner can not hinder the vessel’s owner’s efforts to remove the vessel. Another is the cost associated with removing the vessel. While the vessel owner is ultimately responsible for paying these costs, a more important question is who will front the costs of removal. Does the vessel owner have insurance? Do you know how to find out if the vessel does? As I mentioned above, the non-judicial process might allow you to deal with an abandoned boat without filing suit, but if you want to recover the money you spent removing the vessel you might have to.  

Florida marina’s also have notice requirements before dealing with an abandoned vessel. In addition to the option of removing the vessel from the property, a Florida marina also has the option to sell the vessel. But before doing so, the Florida marina must publish the upcoming sale of the vessel once a week for two consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation. In my area, the major newspaper of general circulation for Hillsborough and Pinellas County is the Tampa Bay Times. For Manatee County, the newspaper of general circulation is probably the Bradenton Herald. The sale of the abandoned boat cannot occur until at least 15 days after the first publication. The marina’s lien can be satisfied by the owner or lienholder at any point prior to the sale. Upon receipt of the payment satisfying the marina’s lien, the marina shall return the boat to the owner or lienholder that made the payment.

If the sale goes forward, the proceeds of the sale are first used to satisfy liens, if any, in the order of the lien priority. While the marina is required to provide notice of the sale to the lienholders and owner, after the sale the marina is obligated to notify the lienholders and owner of the the amount of the proceeds of the sale. If a lienholder or owner does not claim their portion of the sale proceeds within 1 year of the sale, the are deemed to have abandoned the proceeds.

The procedures that legally must be followed for a non-judicial sale of an abandoned vessel can take over fourteen months, but should take much shorter. Further, the legal steps and documentation required by Florida Statutes as part of a marina’s abandon boat sale process must be strictly followed. All statutorily required documentation must be provided by the marina to any new purchaser at the close of the sale. And if the purchaser is unable to transfer title of the vessel to that person or entity’s name, the marina may be exposing itself to civil liability. This is just another reason why the assistance of an attorney to help determine a safe course of action to deal with an abandoned vessel in Florida is a must.