Odyssey Marine Exploration has taken the next step in its legal battle with the country of Spain over potential ownership of treasure the company recovered by filing an Appellate Brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
At stake is nearly 17-tons of recovered artifacts said to include over 500,000 silver and gold Colonial era coins with a value reportedly worth around $500 million. The treasure is said to have been recovered in 2007 as part of the company’s "Black Swan" project which may be centered around the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes. The Mercedes was a Spanish frigate sunk by British warships on October 5, 1804 off the coast of Portugal.
In a test of international law, Spain has claimed that the treasure is from the Mercedes and that as a military vessel, its cargo was under the ownership of that country. A decision last year by a U.S. District Judge supported Spain’s claims and ordered the treasure returned to Spain.
Odyssey has not confirmed the treasure was from the Mercedes (and may not even be able to do so), but affirms that even if it was from the Mercedes, Spain has no legal interest in the recovered cargo.
To support this claim, Odyssey refers to the recent court decision Aqua Log, Inc. vs. State of Georgia, 594 F.3d 1330, 11th Cir. 2010 in which the court ruled that the position of sovereign immunity is not applicable if the sovereign does not have possession of the salvage. Odyssey continues that Spain does not have possession of the cargo and even if it was from the Mercedes, a majority of that cargo was from private individuals, and not property of Spain.
To further solidify its position with the Appeals Court, the Brief points out several errors that Odyssey Marine Exploration feels were made by the District Court. First among these were due process as Odyssey states that the District Court unquestioningly accepted the testimony presented by Spain.
The Brief goes on to point out that even if the cargo was from the Mercedes, the District Court’s assumption that the ship was not engaged in commercial activity is not supported by the facts. As such, the claim of foreign sovereign immunity is invalid.
"We remain confident in our case and in the legal system. I believe that the appellate court will take into account all of the factual evidence which clearly shows that the district court’s dismissal of this case under the FSIA was erroneous," said Greg Stemm, Odyssey CEO. "Our legal team will remain focused on the ‘Black Swan’ case, while our operations team continues to work on deep-ocean search and recovery projects."
Other claimants are expected to file their own briefs in the matter before Spain is allowed to submit their response to the Court of Appeals.