Can I withhold slip fees during a dispute with my marina?

QuestionMy boat was damaged in its slip during a storm last winter, when a cleat pulled out of the dock and my remaining tie up line parted under the resulting strain. Several months before the storm, I advised the marina manager that the dock cleat was loose and I was concerned that it might pull out of the dock in bad weather. I continued to complain, but he never sent anyone down to repair it. After the storm, I asked the marina to repair my boat, but so far they have refused. I decided, therefore, to withhold my slip fee payments, but now they are threatening to evict me. I have heard that the California Floating Home Residency Law may protect me from this kind of intimidation by the marina, since I live aboard my boat. What are my options?

Answer

There is a lot going on with this question, but the reader’s only “option” is to pay his slip fee or leave the marina. We receive a lot of very compelling questions from readers about marina evictions, but the law is almost entirely on the side of the marina.

Boat owners often equate a marina tenancy with a residential tenancy for an apartment or a house, which would include a variety of laws designed to protect a tenant. Unfortunately, this is not a valid comparison, even if the owner lives aboard the boat. A marina tenant is not renting a home at the marina. The tenant is instead renting a patch of water to store a boat, and the tenancy is more accurately compared to the rental of a warehouse space or public storage unit.

The reader indicated that he lives aboard his boat and he asked about California’s Floating Home Residency Law. This law does offer some protection to marina tenants, but only if the boat qualifies as a Floating Home under the definitions set forth in the law. Among other very strict requirements, a “Floating Home” must have a permanent shoreside sewer connection and continuous water and power service. This means that it must have pipes and permanent electrical power rather than hoses and a plug-in shore-power cord. Most of these homes are in Sausalito — and, outside of that town, very few boats qualify as “Floating Homes.”

This case is more complicated than most marina questions, because we must look to the principles of maritime law to address the damage to the boat. In the end, however, the marina still wins because a boat owner must take responsibility for safely mooring his or her boat.

Maritime law imposes a long list of duties upon a vessel owner that may not be delegated to anyone else. One of these “non-delegable” duties is the duty to tie up your boat properly. The “proper” way to tie up a boat will vary depending on the circumstances, but there is no circumstance that would justify the securing of a boat’s only bow line to a cleat that is known to have a problem. The analysis may be different if the damage is caused by a hidden defect, such as a rotten piling that appeared to be sound. But here, the boat owner was aware of the problem for several months before the incident.

The boat owner in this case is now facing an eviction, and he feels that the eviction amounts to a form of unlawful intimidation. Under California law, a landlord is prohibited from evicting a tenant in retaliation for the tenant’s exercise of some legal right. Some courts have held that this protection is not limited to residential tenancies, and as such it is one of the few tenant protection laws that may apply to a marina tenancy. It will not, however, help the boat owner in this case. This law is primarily intended to protect “whistleblowers” who complain to a regulatory or law enforcement agency about illegal or unregulated activity by the landlord. It may be possible to extend it beyond the intended or traditional scope of the law, but in this case, the boat owner is being evicted simply for not paying his slip fees.

Marina tenancies involve a complicated blend of traditional maritime law and state law, and they should be viewed as a commercial tenancy rather than a residential tenancy, even where the boat owner lives aboard. An experienced maritime attorney should be consulted to address any specific problems.

David Weil is licensed to practice law in the state of California and, as such, some of the information provided in this column may not be applicable in a jurisdiction outside of California. Please note also that no two legal situations are alike, and it is impossible to provide accurate legal advice without knowing all the facts of a particular situation. Therefore, the information provided in this column should not be regarded as individual legal advice, and readers should not act upon this information without seeking the opinion of an attorney in their home state.

David Weil is the managing attorney at Weil & Associates (weilmaritime.com) in Long Beach. He is an adjunct professor of Admiralty Law at Loyola University Law School, is a member of the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is former legal counsel to the California Yacht Brokers Association. He is also one of a small group of attorneys to be certified as an Admiralty and Maritime Law Specialist by the State Bar of California. If you have a maritime law question for Weil, he can be contacted at (562) 438-8149 or at dweil@weilmaritime.com.

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