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Law School Case Brief

Fairport Int'l Expl., Inc. v. Shipwrecked Vessel - 177 F.3d 491 (6th Cir. 1999)


Where a State does not possess a shipwreck, the State cannot assert the Eleventh Amendment as a defense to an Abandoned Shipwreck Act action.


Wilfred H. Behrens, captain of the ship Captain Lawrence, left the same as it sank in Lake Michigan. Decades later, Fairport International Exploration, Inc. (“Fairport”) acquired an interest in the vessel. Thereafter, Fairport brought an in rem action seeking to perfect his title to the Captain Lawrence, which was embedded in the bottom of Lake Michigan. The State of Michigan intervened under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, contending that Behrens chose to give up the ship, and thus, the same was an abandoned shipwreck embedded in State lands, and belonged to Michigan. The district court found that Michigan established a "colorable claim" of ownership of the wreck and that the Eleventh Amendment therefore divested the court of jurisdiction. The Supreme Court affirmed the decision, but due to the change in maritime law, the case was remanded.


Did the State of Michigan establish a “colorable claim” of ownership of the shipwreck, and therefore, the Eleventh Amendment divested the court of jurisdiction?




The United States Court of Appeals explained that due to a change in maritime law, the Supreme Court of the United States has clarified that because the State of Michigan had not possessed the vessel, the district court should not have undertaken a preliminary Eleventh Amendment inquiry. The Court held that the inquiry should be on whether the Abandoned Shipwreck Act (ASA) applied, not the Eleventh Amendment, and whether the State could show that it owned the vessel by clear and convincing evidence that the captain abandoned the Captain Lawrence. This burden of proof accords with maritime law and with the protection of private property rights against appropriation by the State. 

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