Finds law is applied to previously owned sunken property only when that property has been abandoned by its previous owners. Abandonment in this sense means much more than merely leaving the property, for it has long been the law that when articles are lost at sea the title of the owner in them remains. Once an article has been lost at sea, lapse of time and nonuser are not sufficient, in and of themselves, to constitute an abandonment. There is no abandonment when one discovers sunken property and then, even after extensive efforts, is unable to locate its owner.
A salvor discovered the exact location of a 1857 shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean that contained personal and commercial gold shipments. The salvor filed a petition in the district court to be declared the owner of the gold under marine salvage law. Underwriters and their predecessors in interest had paid off claims for the gold shipments that were on board, and contested the petition. On the eve of trial, a university, a religious order, and others intervened and claimed that the salvor had utilized information they had developed to find the wreck and that they were entitled to a share of any recovery. The district court found that the underwriters had abandoned their ownership claims and granted title in the wreckage and its contents to the salvor. The district court found that the salvor had not utilized the information of the university, the religious order and others.
Did the underwriters abandon their interests in the wreckage which calls for the application of the law on finds?
The court held that the evidence did not sufficiently show that the underwriters had affirmatively abandoned their interests in the gold. Abandonment means much more than merely leaving the property, for it has long been the law that "when articles are lost at sea the title of the owner in them remains. In addition, there is no abandonment when one discovers sunken property and then, even after extensive efforts, is unable to locate its owner. In the treasure salvage cases, often involving wrecks hundreds of years old, the inference of abandonment may arise from lapse of time and nonuse of the property, or there may even be an express disclaimer of ownership. This calls for the application of the law of finds. By contrast, parties who intend to assert a claim of ownership may be identified. In such a case the law of salvage is applied. In this case, underwriters did present several other original documents from their files, which indicated their predisposition that they did not abandon the treasure. The court also held that the district court abused its discretion when it did not afford sufficient time for discovery. On remand, the district court is to apply the law of salvage and determine the share of each underwriter insured.