Odyssey's Booty Plundered? Spain Wins Sovereign Immunity Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 28, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Plundering was once the exclusive purview of pirates and scoundrels.

Then, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals realized that, as a coastal appellate district, it too was ripe for some plundering fun. And so the Eleventh Circuit decided to get in the pirate game, pillaging appellants' somewhat-stolen splendors of the seas.

But, as facts are never quite as simple as alliteration allows, we have to go back to 2007 to see how the Eleventh Circuit's plundering proclivities developed.

In 2007, Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. (Odyssey) discovered the remains of a 19th Century Spanish vessel in international waters west of the Strait of Gibraltar. There was quite a bit of sunken treasure at stake in Odyssey's claim - the company recovered an estimated $500 million of Spanish coins and artifacts.

Odyssey filed a verified admiralty complaint in rem against the shipwrecked vessel and its cargo in the Middle District of Florida and also sought a warrant of arrest.

Spain argued that the vessel was a Spanish warship, and the district court thus lacked subject matter jurisdiction over Odyssey's claims because the vessel was subject to sovereign immunity from judicial arrest under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). The district court sided with Spain.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, clearly impressed by the lore of Spanish military might, affirmed the district court's decision. The court ruled that the vessel was a Spanish warship protected under sovereign immunity, and Odyssey must return the treasure to Spain.

But Odyssey will not yet raise the white flag. The company plans to seek an en banc opinion from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the panel ruling.

Odyssey contends that the courts have erred in finding that sovereign immunity applies to the sunken treasure because the vessel was on a commercial voyage at the time of the wreck, and Spain's attorney admitted that the majority of the coins aboard were not owned by Spain at the time of the sinking, reports CoinWeek.

What do you think? Will Odyssey Marine walk the plank to an en banc victory?

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