Supreme Court Won't Answer Odyssey Marine's Booty Call - U.S. Eleventh Circuit
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Supreme Court Won't Answer Odyssey Marine's Booty Call

The Supreme Court denied certiorari in a dispute over sunken treasure on Monday. The High Court's refusal to reconsider the issue closes a case that was over 200 years in the making. The district court and Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decisions, finding that Spain was entitled to the loot under sovereign immunity, are now final.

Let's go back to the beginning to see how this case began its journey.

In 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. discovered the remains of a 19th Century Spanish vessel in international waters west of the Strait of Gibraltar, recovering an estimated $500 million of Spanish coins and artifacts. Odyssey began legal finders-keepers proceedings, filing a verified admiralty complaint in rem against the shipwrecked vessel and its cargo and seeking a warrant of arrest in a district court in Florida.

Spain contested Odyssey's filing, arguing that the vessel was a Spanish warship, and the district court thus lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Odyssey's claims because the vessel was subject to sovereign immunity from judicial arrest under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

The district court sided with Spain, and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's decision. Because the recovered cargo had come from the Spanish frigate Mercedes -- which exploded and sank in 1804 while returning from South America -- the courts held that the ship's remains and its cargo were the sovereign property of Spain, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Odyssey claimed in its appeal to the Supreme Court that sovereign immunity should not apply because 75 percent of the cargo on the ship was privately-owned, even if it was being transported aboard a Spanish warship. The company also asserted that "by the very nature and definition of a lost or sunken treasure, no party possesses it until recovery."

Odyssey further argued in its brief, "This Court should address this nationally compelling issue because, with the advent of new underwater technology, more archaeological recoveries of shipwrecks and cargo are occurring around the world. With the Eleventh Circuit's decision supporting them, foreign sovereigns without possession for hundreds of years will now conflictingly demand federal courts convey a salvage operator's find to them."

Spain responded that Odyssey had desecrated a burial site, and that it never should have plundered the ship. (Touché, Spain.)

Supreme Court inaction means that Odyssey Marine has officially lost the treasure, but that's not the company's only loss. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Odyssey spent an estimated $2.6 million recovering the Mercedes cargo, and Spain has not offered to compensate the company.

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