The Spanish claim of ownership of their vessels lost in American waters has been upheld by the Courts of America. It would seem a salvage operator requires absolute proof abandonment or the vessel still belongs to Spain. So treasure hunters and investors take note, you might only be incurring a waste of time and money. This case really falls back to the basics, the vessel has/had an owner, the cargo has/had an owner and the personal property on board has/had an owner. Unless relinquished, ownership remains. (I have compiled a table at the bottom of the page of the Spanish wrecks on the US East coast that "may" be subject to a Spanish claim).
Report on Fouth Circiut Court Findings by the University of Mississippi
Technological improvements in shipwreck detection have caused an increase in claims by private parties, states, and countries to previously inaccessible shipwrecks and their cargo. The recent discovery of JUNO and LA GALGA, two Spanish military vessels that capsized during the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries along the Virginia coast, prompted the U.S. to challenge a private salvage company's claim to the vessels. In July, the Fourth Circuit responded by reversing a lower court's decision to grant Sea Hunt, a private salvage company, title to LA GALGA, holding that Spain retained title since Sea Hunt could not prove that Spain had abandoned the vessel.
Sea Hunt Locates LA GALGA and JUNO
In 1998, Sea Hunt obtained permits from the Virginia
Marine Resources Commission to explore for submersed vessels along the Virginia Coast. After spending nearly a million dollars in its search, Sea Hunt revealed that it had located the sunken remains of JUNO and LA GALGA. In order to resolve title to the shipwrecks, Sea Hunt sought a declaratory judgment from the district court stating that Virginia, rather than Spain, owned the vessels. The United States, fearing that the judgment would persuade other nations to divest its similarly situated shipwrecks, filed a claim on Spain's behalf asserting ownership over the vessels. The district court rejected the United States' efforts, but permitted Spain to file its own verified claim. Then, the district court, applying an express abandonment standard, held that Spain retained ownership over JUNO, but had expressly abandoned LA GALGA through Article XX of the 1763 Definitive Treaty of Peace between France, Great Britain and Spain
Fourth Circuit Declares Spain as Owner
Under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (ASA), a state
acquires title to all abandoned vessels embedded within its submerged lands. In defining the term abandoned, the ASA merely provides that abandonment occurs the moment an owner relinquishes its rights to a sunken vessel. On appeal to the
Fourth Circuit, Virginia and Sea Hunt argued that the ASA's definition of abandonment should permit a court to imply abandonment where a sovereign fails
to declare its ownership in a timely manner. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that, as under admiralty law, a sovereign owner appearing before a court to assert its ownership to a shipwreck retains title to the vessel unless an express and affirmative declaration of abandonment is proven.
The Fourth Circuit applied the express abandonment standard to the 1763 Treaty and determined that Spain had not relinquished its rights to LA GALGA. First, although Article XX of the treaty contains "sweeping language of Spain's cession," it never explicitly refers to vessels, warships, shipwrecks, or frigates. Since the treaty contains a detailed catalogue of "non-territorial state property" to be conveyed, but does not include shipwrecks, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Spain had not expressly abandoned its title to the vessels. Likewise, Article XX expressly limits the cession to Spanish property located "on the continent of North America." The specificity of
this territorial limit convinced the court that the shipwrecks were not part of the cession since they were located on the seabed. Next, the court noted that Article XX grants the King of Spain an unlimited amount of time to retrieve his personal property; the other provisions of the treaty specifically set time limits on similar actions. Therefore, absent an affirmative act of abandonment, Spain could retrieve the vessels at any time. Finally, both Spain and Great Britain agreed that the vessels were not included under Article XX. When the parties to a treaty agree to the interpretation of its provisions, the courts must defer to the parties' understanding unless there is "extraordinarily strong contrary evidence." The court was bound by Spain and Great Britain's interpretation since Virginia and Sea Hunt were unable to rebut.
In concluding that Spain retained its right to both LA GALGA and JUNO, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that anything short of an affirmative act of abandonment will undermine a state's or private salvage company's claim to a sovereign shipwreck. This decision stresses that, as under customary international law, sovereign shipwrecks should be protected from unauthorized interference.
Report on Supreme Court Findings by Laurie Asseo of Assiciated Press via Fox News
The Supreme Court stayed out of disputes over the right to salvage two sunken ships and a crashed U.S. warplane off the coasts of Virginia and Florida. The court, without comment, on Tuesday turned down appeals by Virginia and the salvage company Sea Hunt Inc. that Spain abandoned two shipwrecks long ago and now cannot stop salvage efforts off the state's coast. The justices also declined to hear an appeal by a Nevada company that wants to raise a U.S. Navy bomber that crashed off the Florida coast during a training flight in 1943.
The Spanish warship La Galga sank off the Maryland-Virginia coast in 1750 during a hurricane. Most of the passengers and crew reached land safely, but efforts to salvage items from the wreck failed when a second storm broke up the ship. About 430 people died in 1802 when the warship Juno sank in a storm off Virginia. Some believe the ship was carrying a large shipment of coins and precious metals.
Under federal law, shipwrecks within three miles of a state's coast belong to the state if they have been abandoned by their original owners. Virginia gave Sea Hunt a license to salvage two shipwrecks found in its waters, believed to be the La Galga and the Juno. After Spain argued that it still owned the ships, a federal judge ruled that Spain still owned the Juno but gave up ownership of the La Galga in 1763. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last July that Spain still owns both ships. Shipwrecks - particularly those owned by a nation's government — can be considered abandoned only if the owner has clearly relinquished its rights, and Spain has not done so, the appeals court said. In the appeals acted on Tuesday, lawyers for Virginia and Sea Hunt said a ship's abandonment can be "implied." Otherwise, Sea Hunt's lawyers said, "Hundreds of shipwrecks of historic or cultural significance will never be rescued." Spain's lawyers said it never abandoned the ships and wants them left undisturbed as military gravesites.
The bomber that crashed eight miles off the Florida coast in 1943 was a Navy Devastator torpedo bomber that had been used in Pacific combat missions during World War II. The pilot and crew escaped safely. Nevada-based International Aircraft Recovery sought court permission in 1998 to raise the aircraft. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government had not abandoned the craft and that it could not be salvaged over the government's objection. In the appeal acted on Tuesday, International Aircraft's lawyers
said the plane could provide "historical, archaeological and monetary wealth to the public."
The cases are International Aircraft Recovery v. U.S., 00-617; Virginia v. Spain, 00-629, and Sea Hunt Inc. v. Spain, 00-652.