Florida Record

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Case involving centuries-old shipwreck artifacts sent back to Florida

By Dee Thompson | Jul 19, 2017

ATLANTA — A dispute over gold coins and artifacts from an 18th-century shipwreck off the Florida coast is the subject of an appellate court opinion which remands the case back to the district court level.

The case is in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit and is on appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The case stems from a 1979 discovery by Cobb Coin Co., which found a wreckage off the coast of Florida. The company took a cannon from the ship, which dates back to 1715 when Spanish galleons were carrying silver, gold and precious jewels and sank due to a hurricane. Over the intervening years, the contents of the ships were distributed along the coastline by storms and the decay of the vessels. 

Cobb Coin was awarded the salvaging rights to the contents of one of the vessels in 1982. 

"[T]he district court held (and continues to hold) a yearly distribution hearing to adjudicate title to the recovered artifacts and allow competing claimants to be heard," according to the 11th Circuit Court’s opinion. "This process has been carried out faithfully since 1982.”

In 2010, Cobb Coin’s exclusive salvaging rights were distributed to 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels LLC, the successor-in-interest. Fleet-Queens worked with Gold Hound LLC, a subcontractor that helped recover the contents of the ship, which had been spread over 41 miles of the South Florida coastline. Gold Hound used software, maps and data to locate a specific area. In 2013, Fleet-Queens wanted to renegotiate with Gold Hound and sought to take back the proprietary information and data, but Gold Hound refused.

In 2015, Fleet-Queens recovered approximately 400 gold coins, along with other items, from an area where Gold Hound had been operating.

“Gold Hound claimed that this discovery was made using its proprietary maps and software, and accordingly it sought to intervene in the in rem action to assert a maritime lien over some of these artifacts and to assert several state-law claims," the 11th Circuit wrote in its opinion. "It also sought to contest Fleet-Queens’s exclusive salvage rights because Fleet-Queens allegedly mishandled the artifacts in violation of the district court’s 1982 order.” 

Gold Hound’s maritime lien was denied. Gold Hound appealed. Now Gold Hound is challenging the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court.

The 11th Circuit ruled that the Southern District of Florida should decide Gold Hound’s state law claims, including misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and constructive trust, and tortious interference. 

“As for Gold Hound’s claimed maritime lien, we cannot decide on this record whether Gold Hound may succeed because basic facts remain in dispute," the 11th Circuit wrote in the opinion. "We, therefore, vacate the district court’s denial of Gold Hound’s motion to intervene and its denial of Gold Hound’s claim to a maritime lien and remand the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Fleet-Queens also sought to impose sanctions against Gold Hound, and the 11th Circuit declined to do so, saying the motion was untimely.

The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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11th Circuit Court Of Appeal U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida