Kimberley Alderman, over at the Cultural Property & Archaeology Law Blog updates the ongoing dispute between Odyssey Marine Exploration and Spain, with a helpful copy of Odyssey’s response, without exhibits:
Spain asks to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction in that they are a sovereign entity. They argue that the coins were theirs, so the coins are sovereign immune under the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act. This is usually used when a shipwreck is a military ship, because until a State has disclaimed their property, they still own it. So Spain asserts that Odyssey got the coins from the shipwreck is of Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, that its a sovereign ship, and that the U.S. District Court court doesn’t have jurisdiction over them or their coins (e.g., Odyssey needs to get their mitts off of the treasure.)
Enter Odyssey, stage right, who has some pretty good attorneys by the way. They argue, (1) that there is no ship, and no proof that the Mercedes is where the coins originated. There were just a bunch of coins scattered about on the ocean floor. (In another part of the motion, Odyssey points out the coins were salvaged in an archaeologically-sound manner). Therefore, sovereign immunity doesn’t apply.
They back it up with (2) even if the coins came from the Mercedes, they aren’t sovereign immune for a couple reasons. First, the Mercedes is not sovereign immune because it was not exclusively noncommercial at the time of its sinking (was carrying commercial cargo and passengers). Second, the specific journey the Mercedes was on at the time of its sinking was primarily commercial. Finally, most of the Mercedes cargo was commercially owned and therefore wouldn’t be sovereign immune.
The parties are still at the Summary Judgment stage, in which Spain is essentially arguing the dispute cannot continue because Odyssey cannot win, even if the judge were to adopt Odyssey’s view of the evidence. The dispute may hinge on Spain’s ownership of a long-sunk vessel, and what activities it was engaged in hundreds of years ago when she went under. One policy to note, Odyssey has a vested interest in not undertaking a serious archaeological exploration of the vessel, as the more information they have destroyed, the harder it will be for Spain to establish its claim. Regardless of who wins the dispute, that is not a helpful policy.