Can I claim an abandoned vessel? ?
2 attorney answers
The answer depends entirely on where you found the vessel. If it was on dry land or was on a land-locked lake or canal that does not go anywhere or connect with other waters that go anywhere, then chapter 705 is applicable and can be used to claim the vessel. If, however, the vessel was on navigable waters, then chapter 705 does not apply; federal Maritime Law applies and you cannot claim the vessel. There is no "finders-keepers" under Maritime Law except for truly rare cases in which you can prove that the owner evidenced a positive intent to abandon all claim to the vessel and never return to it.
You would be able to "save" the vessel for return to its rightful owner. This is called salvage. You will not get to keep the boat, but you will get rewarded for having saved it. If the owner will not pay for your salvage services or if the owner cannot be found, the federal district court will order the vessel sold to the highest bidder and your salvage award will be paid out of the proceeds of the sale.
Salvage cases are not do-it-yourself matters. They are very complex and you will need an attorney. I suggest you choose one who is thoroughly knowledgeable and experienced in Maritime Law, one who can give you specific legal advice based on the particular facts and circumstances of your case. You can find such an attorney through the Florida Bar. Go to https://www.floridabar.org/directories/find-mbr/. Use the drop-down menus to select “Admiralty and Maritime” in the Board Certifications and Practice Areas menus. You could also check with the Southeastern Admiralty Law Institute (http://www.seali.com/page-1084527?&tab=2) or the Maritime Law Association of the United States (http://mlaus.org/member-directory/); just fill in the city and state. Finally, you can also use the "Find a Lawyer" link at the top of this web page. Maritime Law is substantially different from land-based law. The standard of care is different; the burdens of proof are different; even the amount of time you have to file the case is different. Be very careful in your choice of attorneys to ask specifically how well versed they are in Maritime Law.
This answer is general information for discussion purposes only; do not construe it as legal advice. The applicability of the legal principles discussed will differ substantially in individual situations. You should not act upon the information presented in this answer without consulting an attorney about your particular situation. I am not your lawyer, you are not my client, and no attorney-client relationship is established. Do not construe anything in this answer as creating an attorney-client relationship. Again, this answer is only general information for discussion purposes.
I have a different take on using Florida statutes to try to secure title to any vessel, no matter where they are found. 46 U.S.C.A. § 31307 provides: State statutes superseded. This chapter supersedes any State statute conferring a lien on a vessel to the extent the statute establishes a claim to be enforced by a civil action in rem against the vessel for necessaries.
"In rem" means directly against the vessel, without involving the owner. So, if you try a lien route under state law, that should be void. That is the first level of my answer, which may or may not directly apply. Next, if you claim salvage, Salvage is itself not within the jurisdiction of the State courts (as noted by Mr. Richard), and it does not directly permit a claim for title -- that only occurs if, after you file and present your salvage claim, you are then the successful bidder at the sale overseen by the District (Fed) Court, and receive your title from that District Court. There is also a more specific Florida Statute related to vessels, found at § 328.17. Nonjudicial sale of vessels. (In my opinion, 328 runs directly afoul of the US Code provision, and the last version of this statute was declared invalid. Nobody has bothered to challenge the new version, but . . . )
The definitions for the Statute you reference, F.S. 705.101, provide in part:
(2)“Lost property” means all tangible personal property which does not have an identifiable owner and which has been mislaid on public property, upon a public conveyance, on premises used at the time for business purposes, or in parks, places of amusement, public recreation areas, or other places open to the public in a substantially operable, functioning condition or which has an apparent intrinsic value to the rightful owner.
(3) “Abandoned property” means all tangible personal property that does not have an identifiable owner and that has been disposed on public property in a wrecked, inoperative, or partially dismantled condition or has no apparent intrinsic value to the rightful owner. The term includes derelict vessels as defined in s. 823.11.
So, Your first practical problem is that, unless we are talking about a small dinghy or kayak, the vessel is likely to be registered and titled -- it has an identifiable owner. That often removes the above. It is interesting that (2) above assumes the property is operable. Does that fit your situation? I would hazard a guess that it does not. While I recognize the reference to derelict vessels, private individuals use this at significant risk. You did not say exactly where the vessel is, and as you can see, the statute makes the actual location an element of the definition.
Then there is the specific part of the statute that you reference, 705.102, which is really a "reporting" statute, designed to reach the owner. After discussing that requirement along with the bond to be paid if you want to make a claim, it also says:
(3) It is unlawful for any person who finds any lost or abandoned property to appropriate the same to his or her own use or to refuse to deliver the same when required.
(4) Any person who unlawfully appropriates such lost or abandoned property to his or her own use or refuses to deliver such property when required commits theft as defined in s. 812.014, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
Finally, people often overlook the simplest avenue. Do a title search. Contact the Owner, and offer to take it off their hands (remove their responsibility) for a small amount of money in exchange for a properly verified Bill of Sale. (Don't even start if you can't find a Hull ID number.)
In my opinion, use of state statutes to try to secure title to an already titled vessel -- represents significant risk. In all other respects I agree with Mr. Richard. In particular, you should take the complete set of facts to a maritime attorney in your area (there are many) and consider their advice.
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