Cobb Coin Co., Inc. v. UNIDENTIFIED, WRECKED, ETC., 79-8266-Civ-JLK.

Decision Date31 August 1982
Docket NumberNo. 79-8266-Civ-JLK.,79-8266-Civ-JLK.
Citation549 F. Supp. 540
PartiesCOBB COIN COMPANY, INC., a Florida corporation, et al., Plaintiff, v. The UNIDENTIFIED, WRECKED AND ABANDONED SAILING VESSEL, etc., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Florida




David Paul Horan, Key West, Fla., for plaintiff.

Linwood Anderson, Harold Ward, Lloyd G. Bates, Miami, Fla., George Moss, Vero Beach, Fla., for defendant.



The cultural heritage of the western world, the colonial appetite of the Spanish Empire, nearly three centuries of man's timeless quest for wealth and adventure, and the distribution of authority in the American Federalist legal system are all substantially intertwined in this litigation. This is an admiralty suit by a treasure salvor, Cobb Coin Company, to be declared owner in possession of a wrecked eighteenth century Spanish treasure galleon, or alternatively for an award for salvage services performed on the vessel. The vessel was carrying a king's treasure from the New World to Spain when it was wrecked, along with ten sister ships of the Spanish Plate Fleet, in a devastating hurricane in July 1715. The vessel came to rest on an expanse of sandy bottom under the Atlantic Ocean which, two hundred thirty-eight years later became for some purposes the undisputed sovereignty land of the State of Florida.

On August 17, 1979, the plaintiff Cobb Coin filed its complaint for a declaration of its rights in a wrecked vessel located "within 3,000 yards of a point beginning at coordinates 27° 43.8' N. latitude by 80° 22.8' W. longitude." Three days later the plaintiff retrieved a cannon from the wreck site. On August 29, 1979, the State of Florida answered the complaint, and counterclaimed by asking this Court to declare it owner of the vessel and for restitution from the plaintiff for items it had salved. The State contends it owns all such wrecks within its territorial waters under its Archives and History Act, chapter 267, Florida Statutes (1979), and thereby has plenary authority to administer their salvage.

In the ensuing two and one-half years, Florida's executive branch attempted to enforce its archives and history statute, by arresting and attempting to prosecute the plaintiff's agents and employees from salving the wreck site, despite this court's prior assumption of jurisdiction over this admiralty action. In August, 1979, the Honorable Sidney M. Aronovitz, United States District Judge, denied the plaintiff's motion to enjoin the State in that effort, without prejudice to its right to reapply if the State's actions reached the level of badfaith harassment. In October of 1979, the State moved to enjoin the plaintiff from working the subject site; the motion was denied for, inter alia, lack of irreparable injury as this court ordered the State's interest protected by the placement of its agents on board Cobb Coin's salvage vessel to catalogue the items salved. In June of 1981, the plaintiff Cobb Coin again moved for an injunction against State officers from enforcing the statute by continuing to threaten, and, in fact, arrest, the plaintiff's salvaging crew. On July 7, 1981, this Court entered its temporary restraining order against the impermissible interference by state officers and attorneys with the ongoing jurisdiction of the federal admiralty court. Thereafter, following an eleven-day hearing, the Court entered a preliminary injunction against "the agents, employees, and attorneys of the State of Florida, including but not limited to, any county sheriff or Florida Marine Patrol Officer, ... from interfering with the plaintiff's ongoing salvage operations or arresting the plaintiff's officers, agents, and employees." Cobb Coin Co. v. The Unidentified, Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 525 F.Supp. 186, 220 (S.D.Fla.1981). This Court held a two day non-jury trial in this case at the United States Courthouse at Miami, Dade County, Florida, on June 16th and 17th, 1982. The parties relied in substantial part upon the evidence admitted in the eleven-day hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction and offered some additional evidence. The Court, upon consideration of the evidence and argument of counsel, hereby enters its findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a).1


For a number of years residents of the Florida East Coast and people interested in treasure hunting have known that the wrecks of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet are scattered beneath Atlantic waters near Florida's shoreline. The named defendant in this case consists of the remains of what is believed to be the Almiranta of the New Spain Group of the 1715 Plate Fleet, known to the Spanish by two names: San Christo del Valle and Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion. Tr. at 568 (hereinafter referred to as "Almiranta"). It lies some 100 feet from the shore off what once was Hugh "Papy" Corrigan's property, about 3½ miles north of Vero Beach midway between the Ft. Pierce Inlet and the Sebastian Inlet. Early accounts of the various wrecks along the eastern coast were made as early as 1750, and evidence of their presence has surfaced periodically over the years. The city of Ft. Pierce Chamber of Commerce reportedly salvaged 16 cannons and three massive anchors from the area of the wrecks in the summer of 1928. A number of the cannons for years were displayed in public parks and even in front of a local sporting goods store; other cannons recovered were sold for scrap. See State's Exhibit No. 80. Gold coins have washed up upon the beaches near Ft. Pierce and Vero Beach since at least the early 1940's. See State's Exhibit No. 80. As early as 1958, various books and popular journals reported the story of the 1715 Plate Fleet, including the names and general locations of the ships wrecked, the cargo believed to be carried by, and the number of sailors lost on, each. See Joint Exhibits No. 27-30, and State's Exhibit No. 80. The Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida began entering into leases with treasure hunters for exploration and salvage of the wrecks in 1950. In 1958, the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund adopted for the first time formal restrictions governing salvage and treasure leases on state submerged lands. See State's Exhibit No. 80.

In the late 1950's, Mr. Kip Wagner, a house painter from Wabasso, Florida, became interested in identifying the source of silver "pieces of eight" which could be found on the beach between Sebastian Inlet and Ft. Pierce. Captain Steadman Parker, a resident of the area for over forty years had first pointed the coins out to Wagner. Wagner formed an association with a group of weekend scuba divers to search for more treasures on wrecks he knew were located somewhere off shore; that group became the Real Eight Salvage Co. In 1960 Real Eight obtained a nonexclusive lease from the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund to explore and salvage a 50-mile long, one-mile wide strip of submerged lands, 500 feet off shore, between the Sebastian Inlet to the south and the city of Stuart to the north. The Trustees extended the lease in 1961 for six years, and made it exclusive. That and subsequent leases entered by the State have provided that the Division of Archives and Records Management receive 25 per cent of the articles salved. Wagner and his group located and worked at least eight wreck sites from the 1715 fleet along the east coast, including the Corrigan's wreck site which is the subject of this litigation. See States Exhibit No. 68.

In the summer of 1963, Mr. Mel Fisher, owner of a scuba diving shop, came to Florida from California and became associated with Mr. Wagner and Real Eight. Mr. Fisher formed salvaging groups named Universal Salvage Co., Cobb Coin Co., and Treasure Salvors, Inc. Between October 1963 and August, 1972, Mr. Fisher's companies and Real Eight worked some of the sites of 1715 wrecks pursuant to various agreements, under authority of Real Eight's State leases. Under these agreements, they divided their recoveries 50-50 after deducting 25 percent for the Division of Archives and Records Management. The combined effort yielded large quantities of gold, silver, and other valuable artifacts.2 See Plaintiff's Exhibits No. 8 and 9 and State's Exhibit No. 68. Although the State's archivists admit to having received these artifacts, none could testify with certainty what the State now has, nor are there any records of precisely which of the artifacts it received came from the Corrigan site or other wrecks of the 1715 Fleet. See State's Exhibit No. 68. Real Eight terminated its contract with Fisher's company in 1972. At that time, Mr. Fisher was apparently devoting more of his attention to the search for the treasures of the Atocha and Santa Margarita, which sank in 1622 40 miles west of Key West. Mr. Fisher testified that he gave up on the east coast wrecks because the State officials were slow in sending field agents to accompany salvage vessels and in returning the salvors their share of the recovery. Real Eight Co. retained the exclusive lease with the State and relinquished it voluntarily in October, 1977. The State then issued a lease on the Corrigan site to the Quest Corporation, an intervening claimant in this suit. Quest still holds the lease purporting to give it the exclusive right to search and explore the water over the Corrigan wreck site.

The full record of evidence adduced at the eleven-day hearing on the plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, which was admitted into evidence by agreement of all parties at the trial on the merits, shows that Quest actually went out to the Corrigan site for either exploration or diving forty-nine (49) days during the first two years it held the...

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