731 F.3d 608 (6th Cir. 2013), 11-3723, Williamson v. Recovery Ltd. Partnership

Docket Nº:11-3723, 12-3949.
Citation:731 F.3d 608, 86 Fed.R.Serv.3d 1308
Opinion Judge:BOGGS, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Michael WILLIAMSON, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. RECOVERY LIMITED PARTNERSHIP, Columbus Exploration, LLC, and Columbus-America Discovery Group Inc. (11-3723); Recovery Limited Partnership, Columbus Exploration, LLC, and Thomas G. Thompson (12-3949), Defendants-Appellants.
Attorney:Christopher L. Trolinger, Farlow & Associates LLC, Dublin, Ohio, for Appellants. Michael J. Frevola, Holland & Knight, LLP, New York, New York, for Appellees. Christopher L. Trolinger, Farlow & Associates LLC, Dublin, Ohio, for Appellants. Michael J. Frevola, Holland & Knight, LLP, New York, New ...
Judge Panel:Before: BOGGS and SUHRHEINRICH, Circuit Judges; and MURPHY, District Judge.[*]
Case Date:October 02, 2013
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Page 608

731 F.3d 608 (6th Cir. 2013)

86 Fed.R.Serv.3d 1308

Michael WILLIAMSON, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

RECOVERY LIMITED PARTNERSHIP, Columbus Exploration, LLC, and Columbus-America Discovery Group Inc. (11-3723); Recovery Limited Partnership, Columbus Exploration, LLC, and Thomas G. Thompson (12-3949), Defendants-Appellants.

Nos. 11-3723, 12-3949.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

October 2, 2013

Argued: June 14, 2013.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED:

Christopher L. Trolinger, Farlow & Associates LLC, Dublin, Ohio,

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for Appellants.

Michael J. Frevola, Holland & Knight, LLP, New York, New York, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Christopher L. Trolinger, Farlow & Associates LLC, Dublin, Ohio, for Appellants.

Michael J. Frevola, Holland & Knight, LLP, New York, New York, Michael R. Szolosi, Sr., McNamara and McNamara, L.L.P., Columbus, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: BOGGS and SUHRHEINRICH, Circuit Judges; and MURPHY, District Judge.[*]

OPINION

BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

This appeal is the latest skirmish in the legal battle over the treasures recovered from the of the 19th-century steamship S.S. Central America, a battle that has spanned three decades and numerous courts. Dubbed the " Ship of Gold," 1 the Central America sank in the Atlantic Ocean in September 1857, taking over 400 passengers and many tons of gold with her. Her wreckage was discovered over 130 years later by a group of explorers led by Thomas Thompson, in what remains one of the most significant finds in maritime history. One jurist described the feat as " a paradigm of American initiative, ingenuity, and determination." 2

Ominously, the same jurist opened his opinion with words that are equally fitting: " Quid non mortalia pectora cogis, Auri sacra fames " 3 The individuals who dedicated their time and talent to the recovery of the Central America have not seen a dime of their promised share of the spoils; Thompson is a fugitive from the law, actively pursued by United States Marshals; and the vast wealth representing the ship's golden cargo is as lost today as it was before September 1988.

The instant consolidated appeal concerns a suit brought by a group of plaintiffs who assisted Thompson in locating the wreckage of the Central America. All signed non-disclosure agreements with Thompson, through his business entities, promising to hold his projects and ideas in confidence in exchange for a percentage of the net recovery of the Central America. All claim to have upheld their respective ends of the bargain, yet none have received payment. The business entities respond by asserting a two-year statute of limitations for actions in salvage and three counterclaims. The district court rejected the business entities' time-bar argument and granted summary judgment against all of their counterclaims. The defendants took an interlocutory appeal of that decision. During the pendency of that appeal, the district court granted a motion for prejudgment attachment and an injunction against one of the business entities and Thompson, forbidding them from divesting certain assets. The two defendants took an interlocutory appeal of that order as well. We consolidated the two appeals.

This appeal requires us to resolve several complex questions of federal jurisdiction and admiralty law. We must first decide which issues we have jurisdiction to hear. In response to the parties' jurisdictional motions in the two appeals, we will assert jurisdiction over the time-bar issue, all of

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the entity defendants' counterclaims, and the injunction defendants' appeal of the attachment and injunction order insofar as the district court issued a preliminary injunction. As to other issues, we refuse to entertain the appeal for want of jurisdiction.

We must then turn to the substantive issues over which we have jurisdiction. We must first determine whether or not the plaintiffs' action is time barred. We hold that the time bar does not apply. Next, we must address the district court's grant of summary judgment against the entity defendants' counterclaims. As the entity defendants have failed to raise an issue of fact material to the disposition of the case, we affirm the district court's order. Finally, we must assess whether or not the district court abused its discretion in granting a preliminary injunction against Thompson and one of the business entities. We hold that it did not. For the reasons discussed in detail below, we affirm the district court in full as to all issues over which we have jurisdiction.

I

A

The tale of the last days of the S.S. Central America has been retold many times by many courts throughout the many years of litigation in this case. None, however, match the excellence of the narrative given by the late Judge Donald Russell of the Fourth Circuit:

The year 1857 is justly famous in American history for its many notable events. Among these was the beginning of a fairly serious financial decline, the aptly named Panic of 1857. Associated with the Panic, and another reason why the year is so famous, is one of the worst disasters in American maritime history, the sinking of the S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA.

The CENTRAL AMERICA was a black-hulled, coal-fired, three-decked, three-masted sidewheeler with a cruising speed of eleven knots. Built in 1852, and launched the following year, she carried passengers, mail, and cargo between Aspinwall, Colombia (on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Panama), and New York City, with a stopover in Havana. Most, if not all, of her passengers were headed to or from California, the route being one leg of the then quickest way between the west coast and the eastern seaboard— from California to the Pacific side of the isthmus of Panama aboard a steamship, across the isthmus on the Panama Railroad, and then from Aspinwall to New York aboard another steamship. Owned by the U.S. Mail and Steamship Company and originally named the S.S. GEORGE LAW (until June 1857), the CENTRAL AMERICA completed forty-three voyages between Panama and New York in her four years of operation. During this period, the California gold rush was in full swing, and it has been said that the ship carried one-third of all gold shipped at that time from California to New York.

In August of 1857, over four hundred passengers and approximately $1,600,000 (1857 value) in gold (exclusive of passenger gold) left San Francisco for Panama aboard the S.S. SONORA. Many of the passengers were prospectors who had become rich and were returning home, either for good or to visit. Also on board were California Judge Alonzo Castle Monson, who resigned from the bench after losing his house and all his money in a famous poker game, and Mrs. Virginia Birch, a.k.a. " the notorious Jenny French," a former dance hall girl well known in San

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Francisco. As for the gold, it was being shipped by California merchants, bankers, and express companies, including Levi Straus and Wells Fargo, to New York banks, the banks wanting specie to stave off the effects of the financial downturn.

The travellers and the cargo reached Panama without incident, and they crossed the isthmus by rail. On September 3, over six hundred people came aboard the CENTRAL AMERICA, as well as $1,219,189 of the gold shipped on the SONORA, the remainder being shipped to England aboard a different vessel. The CENTRAL AMERICA first headed for Havana, which was reached on September 7. There, the ship lay over for a night, and some of the passengers debarked to catch another vessel for New Orleans. On September 8, under clear skies, the CENTRAL AMERICA left Havana for New York, carrying approximately 580 persons and her golden treasure.

On the second day out of Havana, the weather changed and a mighty storm came up. What the passengers and crew could not know was that they were headed directly into the teeth of a ferocious hurricane. As the storm worsened around the CENTRAL AMERICA, a leak developed and soon water was rushing into the boat. The water extinguished the fires in the ship's boilers, and this in turn caused the ship's pumping system to fail. All able male passengers began a systematic bailing of water out of the ship, but it was to no avail; after thirty frantic hours, the boiler fires would still not light and the water level continued to rise.

Knowing the situation was hopeless, Captain William Lewis Herndon managed to hail a passing ship, the brig MARINE, and one hundred persons, including all but one of the women and children aboard, were safely transferred to the other ship. Time and conditions would not allow for any more transfers, however, and shortly after 8 p.m. on September 12, the CENTRAL AMERICA began making its quick descent to the bottom of the ocean.

After being flung into the sea, many of the men managed to come to the top and float there, desperately holding onto any buoyant material available. Six to nine hours after the sinking, fifty of these men were rescued by the Norwegian bark ELLEN. Earlier, a small bird had thrice circled the ELLEN and flown directly into the face of the ship's captain. Taking this as a sign, the captain changed his course to follow from whence the bird had come, and in so doing discovered the fifty floating survivors. Three other men were also rescued when, nine days later and 450 miles away, a ship spotted their lifeboat, which had been riding the Gulf Stream.

In all, 153 persons were rescued, while approximately 425 lost their lives. Also lost were hundreds of bags of mail and the $1,219,189 in gold. At the time, there were rumors that other commercial shipments of gold were aboard, but these were quickly discounted. It is true, though, that a significant...

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