In 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. (a deep-ocean shipwreck exploration and recovery company) discovered a shipwreck in “international waters west of the Straits of Gibraltar”. The remains were those of a 19th century Spanish ship, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. On 5 October 1804, the Mercedes exploded in a showdown between Spanish and British forces (the Battle of Cape Saint Mary) as it made its way from Lima, Peru to Cádiz, Spain. At the time of its demise, the Mercedes was carrying 900 000 silver pesos, 5 809 gold pesos, nearly 2 000 copper and tin ingots, as well as cannons to be delivered to Spain. Odyssey recovered about 594 000 coins and several cannons matching the historical account of what was loaded on the Mercedes.
According to court documents, Odyssey filed a verified complaint on 9 April 2007 “against ‘The Unidentified Shipwrecked vessel, its apparel, tackle, appurtenances and cargo’ in the Middle District of Florida”. The complaint included a salvage award claim as well as a possessory and ownership claim. On 11 April 2007, “Odyssey filed a motion for an order directing the clerk to issue a warrant of arrest in rem against the shipwrecked vessel, its apparel, tackle, appurtenances and cargo”, which was granted. The court also appointed Odyssey as a “substitute custodian of the shipwrecked vessel and any recovered artifacts”.
Shortly thereafter, Odyssey published a notice of arrest, which resulted in Spain filing “a verified claim to the vessel and its content and cargo”. On 19 June 2007, Spain filed a motion for further disclosure of information to aid in the identification of the shipwreck, while also seeking an alternative order to dismiss Odyssey’s complaint, vacating the arrest, and removing Odyssey as the substitute custodian. On 6 August 2007, Odyssey responded with an amended complaint, which Spain moved to dismiss on 19 September 2007. Ultimately, the court ordered Odyssey “to disclose certain information relating to the vessel’s possible identity”.
Following this disclosure, Spain became convinced that the recovered shipwreck was certainly that of the Mercedes. As such, Spain claimed that the vessel and its contents and cargo were “subject to sovereign immunity from all claims or arrest in the United States pursuant to the FSIA [Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act]”. Spain thus filed a motion to dismiss “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction” and filed an alternative motion to grant summary judgement in favour of Spain.
When it became apparent that the vessel was possibly the Mercedes, Peru and 25 individuals filed claims. Peru contended that “it had sovereign rights to property aboard the Mercedes that originated in its territory or was produced by its people’”. 24 of the additional 25 claimants argued that they were “descendants of individuals with cargo aboard the Mercedes”, while the remaining individual claimed “an ancestral interest in any of Spain’s treasure in Florida”.
On 3 June 2009, a Report and Recommendation was issued by the magistrate judge, determining that the vessel was indeed the Mercedes and Spanish property, and concluding that the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter under the FSIA. The magistrate judge recommended that Spain’s motion to dismiss be granted and that Odyssey be ordered to return the res to Spain. On 22 December 2009, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida adopted these recommendations in full. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied the appeals of Odyssey, Peru, and the 25 individual claimants, affirming the District Court’s decision on 21 September 2011. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of the United States denied Odyssey’s appeal on 14 May 2012.
In 2013, Spain moved to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees and costs. On 25 September 2013, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida granted this motion in part, ordering Odyssey to deliver $1 072 979 (USD) to the Kingdom of Spain.
United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division; United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit; Supreme Court of the United States