An article published in the Washingtonian on June 23 highlights the unique circumstances leading to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia’s (EDVA) oversight of the Titanic shipwreck and potential implications for the loss of the submersible “Titan,” which was lost while exploring the shipwreck.
The EDVA’s reputation as the premier admiralty court was reinforced in the late 1980s, following the discovery of the S.S. Central America shipwreck hundreds of miles off the coast of South Carolina. The 1857 wreck left billions of dollars of gold on the ocean floor, leading to a frantic search for treasure once underwater salvage technology enabled search and recovery from the deep sea. In admiralty law, salvage rights are typically granted to the first team to present the recovered artifact to a court.
Upon discovery, marine engineer Tommy Thompson and his crew knew the race was on to bring evidence of the wreck before a judge to lay claim to the treasure. The crew grabbed a lump of coal flew it straight to Norfolk. Once there, the expedition’s lawyer rushed the coal to a judge, who granted Thompson’s team exclusive salvage rights.
Prior to the Central America case, the law of salvage had only been applied to wrecks in US waters close to shore. But the S.S. Central America went down over a hundred miles out at sea, which muddied the jurisdiction. By granting private salvage rights that far out, the court set a new precedent –that the law of salvage could be applied to a wreck more than 100 miles outside of U.S. territory.
WRVB Principal Ed Powers recalls, “I remember the S.S. Central America case well. It was Judge Kellam’s case, and I clerked for him at the tail end of the litigation in 1990. One day they had a gold brick in the courtroom as an exhibit (with quite a few members of the U.S. Marshals Service in attendance for security). I put on some white gloves and picked up the brick and was amazed at how heavy it was.”
The S.S. Central America case made headlines nationwide and helped demonstrate Norfolk as a premier venue for complex legal issues involving shipwrecks. In 1993, representatives of a private salvage company walked a wine decanter recovered from the Titanic wreck site into that same court in Norfolk, seeking exclusive rights to the ship.
Commenting on EDVA’s unique involvement, WRVB Maritime practice leader Dustin Paul offered in the Washingtonian article that, “by the 1990s, Norfolk had actually become a desired location for significant historical shipwrecks. We have very well-respected judges here who are familiar with these types of issues.”
In 1994, the article states, the EDVA granted salvage rights to R.M.S Titanic, Inc. (RMST)—though the rights came with significant caveats. Since the Titanic wreckage is of such obvious historical value—and is the resting place of the more than 1,500 people who drowned—the judge imposed conditions to protect the public interest. Over time, RMST has salvaged thousands of artifacts, and the recovery of each of these artifacts has been overseen by the Eastern District of Virginia, making Norfolk a hub for Titanic activity. In addition, the court regularly reviews plans from various other operations with ambitions to visit the wreck site—including Ocean Gate, the company that operated the submersible that was lost this week.
The salvage and recovery of the Titan submersible wreckage roughly 1,600 feet from the site of the Titanic could mean that some legal issues surrounding the submersible might also appear in court in Norfolk in connection with its oversight of the Titantic.