Grotesque Injustice

In 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. (a serious hi-tech company) located a shipwreck site off the Portuguese coast, and recovered one of the largest treasures ever found, over 17 tons, worth around $500 million. Odyssey had spent millions on the search; millions more bringing the stuff up from the seabed; and still more millions cleaning, stabilizing, and conserving the artifacts and coins. Because they were spread over such a large area, Odyssey said the wreck’s identity could not be determined.

The Spanish government filed suit for the goods in U.S. courts, claiming that the ship was La Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes that sank in 1804, en route to Spain from Peru (then a Spanish colony). Peru also filed a claim; so did descendants of merchants who’d owned some of the cargo.

The U.S. courts ruled for Spain, and the entire treasure has now actually been handed over.

 Odyssey, who did all the work, loses not only the treasure, but all the millions it spent finding, recovering, and conserving it. Spain, having done nothing to earn it, gets the benefit of all Odyssey’s efforts and expenditure. What public interest does this outcome serve?

The wreck was not even found in Spanish waters. There is no line of continuity between the Spanish kingdom of 1804 and today’s democratic government. And anyway, why should Spain’s claim defeat Peru’s? Are we validating Spain’s past colonialist subjugation of Peru? Would a pre-1776 American shipwreck belong to Great Britain?

When I studied property law in law school, back in the Pleistocene era, there was a clear distinction among “lost,” “mislaid,” and “abandoned” goods. Something is “abandoned” if the circumstances show that the original owner has no intention of reclaiming it. In that case, it’s finders keepers. I fail to see why that basic legal principle shouldn’t have applied here. Surely Spain had abandoned this ship; wasn’t still looking for it; had completely forgotten it ever existed until Odyssey found it. (Assuming it’s even the right ship.)*

But I have (of course) a larger point here. What’s really so disturbing about this case is how state interests trump private ones. Here an American court rules in favor of a foreign government against an American defendant. That might be okay if there were a shred of justice to Spain’s claim. But it’s shockingly unjust. And still an American court rules for Spain, screwing an American company.

This is right in line with a whole trend of American governmental actions elevating even dubious foreign state interests over reasonable and legitimate interests of American private citizens. In case after case, the U.S. government has granted foreign requests for import restrictions on old coins, claimed as “cultural patrimony,” and innocent collectors have had coins arbitrarily confiscated in service to these misguided and oppressive strictures.

Another frightening case: an American businesswoman, Diane Huang, is going to federal prison for importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes — because of an obscure Honduran law that requires cardboard — which, the Honduran government itself pointed out, is no longer even valid. But never mind. Huang goes to jail anyway.

Ironically, the U.S. government is still pretty good about protecting its citizens overseas, and had Huang been jailed in Honduras on such ridiculous charges, would have worked hard to free her. Yet at home, it’s different.

 The American revolution was fought for one crucial idea: that governments exist to serve the governed. But the principle is eroding, with governments, even in democracies, so big and powerful that private rights are repeatedly thrown under the governmental bus.

A postscript: Spain is now suing Odyssey Marine, for reimbursement of $4 million in legal costs that Spain incurred in ripping off Odyssey’s treasure.

* From what I have read about this case’s legal details, I have been unable to make sense of why Spain won.

One Response to “Grotesque Injustice”

  1. Laird Sinjin-Smythe III Says:

    Well the conquistadors stole it from the Mayans and the Incas. So I guess the Spain politicos feel, “To the victor go the spoils”.
    To hell with the American shareholders…sell ’em down the river.
    They don’t have any rights anyway…right. Stick it to them judge.
    The Spain politicos lawyer even equated the treasure ship sunk 250 years ago with the SS Arizona in Honolulu bay. My uncle might be on the Arizona.

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