S.S. Central America sunken treasure and 6th Cir opinion

Posted by & filed under Sixth Circuit.

The Sixth Circuit released an opinion yesterday on a subject that I’ve actually had a run-in with at another time in my life. It involved the sinking of the S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA (which was formerly known as S.S. GEORGE LAW) in 1857, along with $1,600,000 in gold which was mined from gold rush California (in today’s dollars, this is almost 39 Million).

While I was a graduate student, I wrote my Master’s thesis on aspects of the California and Nevada Gold rushes, and I spent much of my research on a particular miner and the letters he sent home to his wife in Hartford, Vermont. The miner, N.A. Chandler, wrote letters almost monthly to his wife.

His letter of November 1st, 1857 reads in part,

Nov 1st /57

“Dear Wife I received yours of Sept 16th yesterday the mail did not arrive as soon usual by about 8 days owing to the Disaster of the Geo Law which you have more particulars about than I have. Thare were some who I knew aboard one young man who has been to work where I have this fall and summer and several from Alpha it was a very sad affair for them when so near home it would have been better perhaps if they had been coming this way. . . .”

Fast-forward 130 years.

A man named Thompson and his colleagues located the Central America in September 1988 off the coast of South Carolina. Using a submersible robot, they began removing millions of dollars in gold coins, ingots, and bars from the wreckage. . . and the lawyers descended. Under the Maritime law of finds, the insurance companies took part ownership, and Thompson and his colleagues took part ownership under the Maritime law of salvage. But Thompson has not yet paid his colleagues their share, and this lawsuit results.

Several of the employees and various companies involved in the gold discovery became entangled in this lawsuit brought in Ohio State Court. One reason the action was first brought in Ohio is that there were seven crates of artifacts stored in a warehouse in Columbus. The action was removed to Federal District Court.

The district court judge granted several requests by the colleagues, and ordered Thompson to appear in person before the court. When he did not appear, the judge issued a bench warrant for Thompson’s arrest. He remains at large today.

The rest of the case deals with issues of federal jurisdiction and maritime law, complex procedural issues which you can read at your leisure.

Last, to the Sixth Circuit we owe this nugget-of-a-quote:

“To be sure, salvage actions have long presented numerous complexities for the federal courts. Add to this the factual peculiarities of a recovery operation for treasures long, and assumed forever, lost at the bottom of the ocean, and even the most seasoned jurist can find himself navigating uncharted waters.”

The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court in full over all issues under which they had jurisdiction. (The Defendants need to start showing the gold.)

It seems that, as N.A. Chandler wrote, it has been “a very sad affair.”

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