Columbus-America Discovery Group v. Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co.

Decision Date12 November 1992
Docket NumberNos. 90-2730,COLUMBUS-AMERICA,s. 90-2730
Parties, 24 Fed.R.Serv.3d 14 DISCOVERY GROUP, Plaintiff-Appellee, and Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York; Harry G. John; Jack F. Grimm, Plaintiffs, v. ATLANTIC MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY; Insurance Company of North America; Salvage Association; London Assurance; Alliance Assurance Company, Ltd.; Royal Exchange Assurance; Indemnity Marine Assurance Company, Ltd.; Marine Insurance Company, Ltd.; Superintendent of Insurance of the State of New York, Claimants-Appellants, and The Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, its engines, tackle, apparel, appurtenances, cargo, etc., located within a box defined by the following coordinates: Northern Boundary--31 degrees 37 minutes North Latitude; Southern Boundary--31 degrees 33 minutes North Latitude; Western Boundary--77 degrees 2 minutes West Longitude; Eastern Boundary--76 degrees 57 minutes West Longitude, (believed to be the S.S. Central America), in rem, Defendant, CIGNA Group, Commercial Union Assurance Company, Ltd.; Commercial Union Insurance Company; William H. McGee & Company, Incorporated; Royal Insurance; Royal Insurance Company, Ltd.; Royal Insurance Company of America; Chubb & Son, Incorporated; Sun Alliance Group; Underwriters at Lloyd's; GRE of America Corporation; Guardian Royal Exchange; Indemnity Mutual Marine Assurance Company; Sun Insurance Company of New York; Sun Insurance Office, Ltd.; Great Western Insurance Company; Sun Mutual Insurance Company; Union Mutual Insurance Company; Oriental Mutual Insurance Company; Commercial Mutual Insurance Company; Mercantile Mutual Insurance Company; New York Mutual Insurance Company; Pacific Mutual Insurance Company; Indemnity Marine; London Associated Corporation; Royal Associated Corporation; Royal Marine; Indemnity Mutual; Royal Exchange & London Offices; Union Bank of London; Commonwealth Fire Insurance Company; Dennis Standefer; the R/V Liberty Star, her master, officers, crew and all persons aboard; Board of Trustees of Columbia Univers
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Douglas A. Jacobsen, Bigham, Englar, Jones & Houston, John H. Reilly, Jr., Dickerson & Reilly, Edward A. Friedman, Friedman & Kaplan, New York City, Guilford D. Ware, Crenshaw, Ware & Martin, Norfolk, Va., argued (Marilyn L. Lytle, George R. Daly, Bigham, Englar, Jones & Houston, Robert D. Kaplan, Friedman & Kaplan, New York City, James L. Chapman, IV, Crenshaw, Ware & Martin, Norfolk, Va., Daniel R. Warman, John Y. Richardson, Jr., Williams, Worrell, Kelly, Greer & Frank, Norfolk, Va., on brief), for appellants.

Richard T. Robol, Hunton & Williams, Norfolk, Va., Robert W. Trafford, Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, Columbus, Ohio, argued (Kevin J. Cosgrove, Robert M. Tata, Stephen W. Haynie, Hunton & Williams, Norfolk, Va., Curtis A. Loveland, William J. Kelly, Jr., Daniel F. Gourash, Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur, Columbus, Ohio, on brief), for appellee.

Allan S. Reynolds, Reynolds, Smith & Winters, Norfolk, Va., for amici curiae.

Before RUSSELL, WIDENER, and HALL, Circuit Judges.


DONALD RUSSELL, Circuit Judge:

"When Erasmus mused that '[a] common shipwreck is a source of consolation to all', Adagia, IV.iii.9 (1508), he quite likely did not foresee inconcinnate free-for-alls among self-styled salvors." Martha's Vineyard Scuba HQ, Inc. v. The Unidentified, Wrecked and Abandoned Steam Vessel, 833 F.2d 1059, 1061 (1st Cir.1987). Without doubt the Dutch scholar also could not imagine legal brawls involving self-styled "finders" from Ohio, British and American insurance underwriters, an heir to the Miller Brewing fortune, a Texas oil millionaire, an Ivy League university, and an Order of Catholic monks. Yet that is what this case involves, with the prize being up to one billion dollars in gold.

This gold was deposited on the ocean floor, 8,000 feet below the surface and 160 miles off the South Carolina coast, when the S.S. CENTRAL AMERICA sank in a hurricane on September 12, 1857. The precise whereabouts of the wreck remained unknown until 1988, when it was located by the Columbus-America Discovery Group ("Columbus-America"). This enterprise has since been recovering the gold, and last year it moved in federal district court to have itself declared the owner of the treasure. Into court to oppose this maneuvre came British and American insurers who had originally underwritten the gold for its ocean voyage and then had to pay off over a million dollars in claims upon the disaster. Also attempting to get into the stew were three would-be intervenors who claimed that Columbus-America had used their computerized "treasure map" to locate the gold. The district court allowed the intervention, but it did not give the intervenors any time for discovery.

After a ten-day trial, the lower Court awarded Columbus-America the golden treasure in its entirety, 742 F.Supp. 1327. It found that the underwriters had previously abandoned their ownership interests in the gold by deliberately destroying certain documentation. As for the intervenors, the Court held that there was no evidence showing that Columbus-America used their information in any way in locating the wreck.

Upon appeal, we find that the evidence was not...

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